28 Feb

5 Steps to Mindful Writing

Posted in Mindful Writing, Revision, Writing, Writing Exercises

Mindfulness is the idea of becoming aware of our mind; we notice when it wanders and strive to bring it back to the task at hand.  Mindfulness is all about being present and living fully in the moment.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness and its connection to writing.   In particular, how can we as writers, improve our writing practice by being more present in the moment?  Here are 5 steps I’ve discovered that bring me to more mindful writing. 

1)  Show up at the page.  This is the “being present” part of mindfulness practice.  It might seem like a no-brainer, but you can’t write if you don’t actually show up at the page.  These days it’s so easy to putter around and “look busy.”  You can tweet or post on Facebook that you’re writing.  You can hang out with writing friends and talk about how you’re going to write.  You can do lots of things instead of writing, but if you don’t actually pull out your pen and paper to write, you won’t get any writing done.  It’s that simple.

2)  Be aware.  Are you feeling overly judgmental about the current project?  Are you loving your idea a little too much?  Is your inner critic gnashing at the bit?  Notice your emotional impulses (especially fears and worries) as you write, then set them aside and keep writing. 

Tip:  I keep a worry jar on my desk where I write my fears on a slip of paper and put it in the jar.  This way, I get them out of my head and put them away for safe-keeping so that I can keep writing. 

3)  Draw on your Wise Mind.  Wise Mind is where Emotional Mind and Rational Mind intersect.  Wise Mind is where you find the resources to write mindfully and push forward in your work.  When you write, your Rational Mind might be worried about pragmatics: how tough it is to get published and why you should be researching potential agents before you write your book.  Your Emotional Mind will probably focus on emotions like: What’s the use?  Whatever you write will never be perfect so why bother?

Wise mind is the part of you that tells the other two to shush.  It’s the part of your mind that acknowledges that both Rational Mind and Emotional Mind do have a point but that they’re not right about everything.  Yes you need to know something about the business, but if you don’t write, you won’t have anything to sell.  And maybe your book won’t be perfect, but you can work at it and make it better, as long as you put words on the page in the first place.

4)  Sit with your discomfort (for a little while).  I hate mindfulness exercises.  I fidget too much and can’t keep still.  My left knee is always bouncing and I have a nervous tick where I start to laugh if I think people are looking at me.  Still, I make myself do them because I know it’s important.   I do my best to sit with my discomfort for a while, until it starts to melt away.

The same is true for writing.  I used to have this knee-jerk reaction whenever writing something would get hard: I’d start writing something else.  Now I force myself to sit with the uncomfortable project for a little while, to see if my decision to set it aside is one of pragmatics (the project just isn’t feasible) or based on my own discomfort.  If the latter, I try to work through the discomfort.

5) Practice, practice, practice.  This comes back to showing up at the page.  The goal with mindfulness isn’t to be aware of every thought every minute of the day.  The point is to be able to turn on the “mindful” switch and become aware when you need to be.  The same is true for writing.  You need to practice getting “in the zone” so that eventually you will be able to do it on command.

Contrary to popular belief, the brain is a muscle and you need to work it often.  As you become more accustomed to switching on this level of awareness–this mindfulness–you’ll be able to do it whenever your writing needs a boost.


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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08 Nov

Famous Last Words

Posted in Process, Writing, Writing Exercises

Everyone’s always talking about first sentences and how important it is that they make an impact and draw the reader into the story.  But what about the last sentences, the words that stick with readers after they put down the book?

As writers, most of us are wired to take a sentence and write forward from it, but how often do we write toward something, toward an ending?  A classic writing exercise is to take a random sentence from a famous novel and write from there, using those words to jump-start our own writing.  Today I’d like to challenge you all to do the opposite.  Below is a list of last sentences, final words from existing books.  The idea here is to write toward these last words so that they fit as the last sentence of your piece.

Here’s a fun exercise! Choose one of the sentences below and write a short piece with the sentence you chose as the final sentence.

  • No one has claimed them yet.
  • “Let me tell you about it.”
  • Everything must go.
  • “Make me pretty.”
  • …and it was still hot.
  • It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  [She] was both.

Bonus points to anyone who can guess which books these sentences come from!


08 Sep

A Question of Character

Posted in Character, Craft, DIY MFA, Writing Exercises

Today is our first day of the Craft component of DIY MFA and I’ll begin with a caveat.  Craft is a HUGE topic and there’s no way I’d be able to cover every detail in just four posts.  Think of these Craftivity posts each as an “amuse bouche” to whet your palette, teasers to spark further study.

Today’s topic is character.  One of the things I often have trouble with when developing characters is keeping track of all of their traits and details.  Here are two tricks I’ve come up with to help keep tabs on my characters.

Character Compass

I’m sure most of you have heard the adage: Show, Don’t Tell.  Well according to Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers’ Workshop), there’s not one, not two, but four ways you can show your character’s traits.  These are: Thought, Appearance, Dialogue, Action (or as I like to call it, TADA!).  I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble juggling one aspect of my character at a time, much less four of them simultaneously.  This is why I devised a tool called the Character Compass.

Here’s how it works.  You draw a circle with two perpendicular axes (see example above).  Label each axis with the TADA techniques.  Now draw a dot on that line to indicate how much of each you used for that character in a given scene (the closer the dot is to the circle’s edge, the more of that technique you used.)  Connect the dots and you get a visual representation of how you showed that character.

Now I can guess what you’ll say next.  Do you really have to use the same amount of all four TADA techniques?  No.  The point of the Character Compass is to highlight what your tendencies are.  For example, using the Character Compass on a WIP, I learned that I rely a lot on dialogue and actions to show characters’ traits but I rarely use appearance and I’m terrified of using thought.  This exercise was a wake-up call for me because it showed me areas of my characters that I had been neglecting.  I realized that in order to be a versatile writer it’s important that I be comfortable in using all of the TADA techniques, not just one or two.

Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio

Another trick I picked up is what I call the Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio for my characters.  I’m sure many of you can relate when I tell you that I write these long, extensive bios for my characters.  Trouble is, I forget half of the information when I actually sit down to write.  I got frustrated paging through long documents to look up details about my characters so I devised this method of creating “At-A-Glance” Bios.  These character bios are so small, I can write them each on one index card and tuck them in my notebook.  Here’s how it works.  (This technique was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll.)

Step 1: Write the character’s name vertically on the page so that each letter gets one line.
Step 2: For each letter of the character’s name write a trait or important detail about the character.

Example: Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

His grin stays behind
Says “we’re all mad here…”
Hides out in Wonderland
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Exceedingly mad

Croquet with the Queen
Appears and disappears
Talks in riddles

These acrostic bios are tricky but they force you to think of your character in terms of specific, concrete details.  In the end, I haven’t abandoned regular character bios completely, I just use these acrostic bios as a way to keep the most essential traits of my characters on the tip of my mind.

Today’s Task: try your hand at one of today’s techniques.  Or, if you prefer, share another tip or trick you’ve used that relates to developing characters.


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