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Sunday

Writing When You'd Rather Do the Dishes

Let's face it: sometimes we don't feel like writing. Even on days that turn out to be my most successful writing days, I start my writing time by fighting a desire to finish the housework, water the plants, or even take a nap.

One of my college professors once told our class that anytime he has a big paper to prepare for a conference, his house ends up being extremely clean because he will exhaust every possible means of distracting himself before sitting down and writing the paper.

In previous blogs, I have discussed ways to cultivate a creative environment, and those are certainly important. However, sometimes, especially if you write as a full-time occupation, you simply will not feel like writing. Here are some tips I am learning from those times when I don't feel like writing.

1) Realize that it is a normal part of the writing process to feel unmotivated sometimes. Don't beat yourself up or convince yourself you are a bad writer because of it.

2) Take small steps. Don't tell yourself, "I've got to write 20 pages in my novel today!" because you will overwhelm yourself. Tell yourself, "I am going to sit down and start writing the next page I need." After you finish a page or two, you will most likely find yourself back in the writing flow.

3) Remember that revision is not only an option, but a necessary next step in the writing process. Don't get so caught up in writing something perfectly the first time that you squelch your productivity. Just focus on getting it written, then wait until a separate time to revise.

Questions for Comment: Have you ever struggled with the feeling of not wanting to write despite needing to? What did you do to overcome this feeling?

Monday

Where You Write Matters for How You Write


Often, you can find me wearing my polka-dot fuzzy pants, sitting on the couch with the tv on, trying to write. My puppy interrupts me so I will let her go outside and find beetles. Dishes pile up in the sink, and towels need to be washed immediately if my husband and I are going to have any clean ones tomorrow.

Sound familiar?

So, today I decided that I would try a different approach: moving myself off of my couch and into Barnes and Noble. I found this approach to be very helpful, and I plan to relocate my writing area several times a week.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a place to write:

1) Find a place where you can focus. Let's face it: the biggest struggle with writing from home is, well, that it's home. There are things that need to be cleaned, washed, and watched. One of the benefits of Barnes and Noble for me was that I don't know how to get on their WiFi and knew that would minimize my Facebook and Twitter time.

2) Go somewhere that makes you feel cool. No, not chilly. Inspired. Happy. (Unless your "place" is Maui, like me. That makes things a bit challenging.) Music is important. If your location makes you feel creative, you will trick yourself into writing more creatively. Think Barnes and Noble, Panera Bread, Starbucks, etc.

3) Coffee shops are a great option, but consider free hang-outs as well, like parks. While coffee shops offer an easily-accessible, conducive environments for creative thought, you're going to drop $2-$4 every time you go there, which can add up if you are planning to write every day.

4) Pick a place far away from distractions, or determine in your mind that you will not run errands during writing time. After making a lot of progress today, I decided I would take a quick break and run by the mall. My "break" turned into shopping time when I saw the sales.

5) Find a place (and people) that you can write into your story. An added benefit of going somewhere people congregate is that you can casually people-watch. Need descriptive details for your coffee shop scene in your contemporary novel? All you have to do is look around. Was the barista rude to you when you asked for extra sweetener? Write her into your story; that will show her.

Even if you can't physically relocate your writing environment, try to find ways to metaphorically relocate it by listening to music, going outside, or going to a different room to write. Make rules for yourself for how much housework your let yourself do during writing time. Writing is indeed a talent, gift, and career that must be intentionally cultivated. Don't sell yourself short as a writer by allowing your writing time to become crowded out with busywork.

Have you struggled with distractions when trying to write from home? What strategies have you found help you focus? Do you have a favorite writing spot?

Wednesday

Three Easy Grammar Rules to Improve Professionalism

In the middle of a semester, you can easily find me at my kitchen table at 1:30 in the morning, promising to myself that if one more student's paper demonstrates a total disregard for the particular comma rule I just taught them, I will never teach grammar again. Of course, the next paper usually will ignore the same comma rule, and I will not follow through with my promise. I love students too much to quit trying to teach them something they greatly need just because many of them find it boring. I also, oddly enough, love grammar too much to let it go. Thing is, these are not stupid kids, nor are they in middle or even high school. They are in a freshman-level composition course at a university. You would think that I would not be the first one to teach them where commas go.

Unfortunately, many times I am. I have had very bright students not know the difference between active and passive voice, not know where the apostrophe goes in "its," and confuse "their" for "there."

So, grammar nerd that I am, I thought I would list the three most common grammar errors that I find in students' writing because I often see them in other professional avenues as well.

Are you a writer? Looking to make your manuscript or proposal sound more professional? Keep these rules in mind when reviewing your work. I find myself making these errors all the time.

1) Pronouns must agree in both number and gender with their antecedents. People like to avoid gender-biased language, which is good, but then they often replace it with another grammar error (a pronoun number problem).

Example (Wrong): Each student must study their books for the final exam.
What is wrong with this sentence? "Each" is a singular pronoun, but "their" and "books" are plural. We have to switch things around so that the number matches.

Correct: Each student must study his or her book for the final exam.

Or

Correct: All students must study their books for the final exam.

2) Use a comma after an introductory element in a sentence (usually they begin with the words "however," "because," "for," "so," "once," etc.). An introductory element is just what it sounds like: words that introduce the rest of your sentence. The element can be a single word like "so," or it can be a group of words.

Example (Wrong): For the time being I will watch LOST.
The reader gets confused by the lack of necessary punctuation.

Correct: For the time being, I will watch LOST.

Another example:
(Wrong): Because Etsy.com has so many vintage items many people buy 1950's style dresses from the website.

Correct: Because Etsy.com has so many vintage items, many people buy 1950's style dresses from the website.
You can see how the incorrect example is difficult to understand because the reader does not know where to pause the initial thought of the sentence, whereas the comma adds clarity.

3) Avoid run-ons and comma splices by using correct punctuation between two complete thoughts in a sentence. Comma splices and run-ons are essentially the same thing: trying to jam too much information into one sentence without the proper punctuation. Any time that you have two complete thoughts in a sentence, meaning that you could break the sentence into two separate sentences and they would both make complete sense, you can't just put a comma in between the complete thoughts. Commas are just not strong enough to handle such a tough job.

You either to need to use
a) a comma with a coordination conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet)
b) a semicolon
c) or just break the two thoughts into two sentences.

*Remember that both parts of the sentence must express complete thoughts, meaning they both must contain a subject and a verb, in order for this rule to apply.

Example (Wrong): She burnt my chocolate chip cookies and she thinks it's funny.
Here we have the word "and" trying to join the two thoughts all by its lonesome self. It needs to help of my friend, the comma.

Correct: She burnt my chocolate chip cookies, and she thinks it's funny.

Another example:
(Wrong): The act of writing is a process, the journey is never finished.
Here, on the other hand, we have the opposite problem: a comma is desperately in need of a coordinating conjunction to keep it company. We could also use a semicolon for extra style points.

Correct: The act of writing is a process; the journey is never finished.

*Also, note that this rule goes both ways: don't use a comma with a coordinating conjunction if you do not have two complete thoughts in the sentence, unless the sentence needs the comma for clarity purposes. (An example would be my previous sentence.)

Example (Wrong): She loves dogs, and is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society.
We don't need the comma after "dogs" because the second half of the sentence could not stand by itself ("is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society).

Correct: She loves dogs and is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society.


Any questions about these three rules? How does catching grammar errors affect your impression of an organization or individual's professionalism?

Sunday

Contests and Such

We all know it's inevitable: every time there is a contest, some people don't final. In fact, most people don't final.

Thing is, no one expects to be in the group that doesn't final, and sometimes it can be hard to get the news that your beloved story wasn't quite so beloved by the judges.

Recently, I entered ACFW's Genesis contest, only to find out that I didn't make the cut. Initially, I genuinely expected to get a call because I was proud of the work I submitted. However, as the days went by, I grew disappointed, realizing I was probably going to be part of the non-finaling group.

I was pretty disappointed. However, by the time I got the official e-mail with the news that I didn't final, I had already begun to adjust to the idea. In many ways, not being a finalist is a good thing because it has allowed me to get some much-needed feedback before I write any more of my work-in-progress.

So, what are some things you can do to take your disappointment about a contest, or even a meeting with a potential editor or agent, and use it to better yourself and your writing?

1) Spend time wallowing if needed. You worked hard. You had hopes about winning the contest. Perhaps you even had visions about holding a winner's plaque, and you assumed these visions must be prophetic. The reality is that it's disappointing when you pour yourself into something, only to find that the reception of your work did not match your expectations. It's ok to feel bummed out. Accept that.

2) After the appropriate wallowing time, pick yourself up, dust the rejected feeling off (is it possible to dust a feeling?), and determine to move forward. We've all heard it before: "not winning something is just an opportunity to grow from that experience." Sounds like a lame attempt to make us feel better whenever we know the real truth: we lost. Right? Well, not really. While people do say these kinds of things to make us feel better, at the same time, disappointment is one of the strongest catalysts for growth. What matters is how you allow disappointment to shape you.

3) Realize that writing is a process, not an end-point. No matter how good of a writer you are, you will face rejection at some point because rejection comes along with the nature of writing. Writing is not like math; it is about growth rather than solving the equation. For that reason, don't think of your piece as being "wrong," but rather, as being at a particular point in its growth process. Even published pieces still have the capability to improve.

4) Try to incorporate the judges' suggestions. Maybe the judges said your dialogue seemed artificial, or your setting needs further articulation. I had a judge say that my story was my weakest part. No, I am not kidding. When I first read that comment, I felt angry. But then, after I removed my emotion from getting in the way of my judgement, I realized the reviewer was right. My characterization and dialogue were interesting, but I hadn't given readers the stakes of the story, or reasons why they should care about my protagonist, until the third or fourth chapter. Because of those reviews that were hard to read, I realized that the conflict in my work-in-progress currently doesn't come in until at least twenty or thirty pages into the book, which is something I've already been working to change. I am thankful for the feedback because it allows me to see blind-spots in my writing, areas that I unconsciously ignore because I am so closely linked to my own work.

5) Remember that at the end of the day, everything is still exactly the same as it was before you found out that you didn't final. While feedback is invaluable during revision, not all judges will understand the heart of your story. Maybe they totally missed your symbolism, or just didn't get your main character's humor. Only you know the heart of your story, and you need to stay true to that, cliche as it may sound. Don't make any edits that compromise the deeper issues at stake in your work. Also, remember why you are writing. While winning contests is encouraging, if you rely on that kind of validation in order to write, you will never make it. Something inside you must be called to write, must think throughout your day "I could write that person into my book," must feel affirmed by the act of writing. If that's the case, you will soon realize that a contest does not have the power to define you or your writing.

Wednesday

When Inspiration Hides

I am a beginning fiction writer.

I have plenty of experience writing academic essays, even grading papers. Fiction, however, is another story.

For some reason, I found myself waiting for the elusive fiction fairy sometimes. I think she must hang out with the laundry fairy and the dishwasher fairy. When I finally do get inspiration, I'm usually either in my car on the way somewhere that does not permit my taking out a laptop and typing away, or I'm in bed and it's 1:00 in the morning (not exactly the best time to write).

So, why does inspiration hit us at such inconvenient times? I think it's because we try too hard. When we go looking for inspiration, it hides. When we finally "turn off" our minds from trying so hard to be creative, creativity flows more organically. For me, that is why I often get my best ideas before falling asleep.

Here are some things I've found to be helpful when you aren't feeling creative, but you know you need to write anyway:

1) Stop searching for the world's greatest idea. Just start writing. Fiction writing is similar to poetry writing in that you rarely have your best idea right away. Sometimes you have to write your way into a brilliant idea. It may take five, ten, or even twenty pages, but eventually you'll get there.

2) Stop being so hard on yourself! Sometimes I shoot down my own ideas because they don't seem good enough. If your standard is perfection, you will never write more than a page, and you will be lucky to get that much done. Remember: writing is a process, not a finish line.

3) Look for inspiration in unexpected places.
Write from life experience. Go outside and take a walk. Start listening to people's conversations in public. Become an expert observer.

4) Stop updating your Facebook status while writing! Focus your energy on your story. When I get a great idea, I want to share it with the world immediately, but then I lose focus. Sometimes you have to block out things that call for your attention. Better yet, use those struggles in your story; they will make your characters even more believable.

5) Don't be afraid of criticism. Sometimes when I think something I've written is very strong and then I hear someone criticize it, or it doesn't win a contest I entered, or someone just doesn't like it, I lose motivation to continue writing. I think this loss of motivation is a natural part of the writing process because we write with readers in mind. However, at some point you simply have to pick yourself up and trust that if God called you to write, He will not only use the criticism to strengthen you but will also give you the tools you need to do the job well. Also, don't forget to spend time in prayer and Bible reading. When I get busy, those two things are often the first to go; however, those two things actually motivate the rest of our lives.

I hope these tips will encourage you on your writing journey. When all else fails, you can always blog to avoid working on your book yet still feel productive. ;)

Ashley