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Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

Kid in a Candy Store, or Careerist?

I was a guest of honor, I guess you could say, at my alma mater’s Career Day. And as I suspected, I learned more from the kids than I could ever teach.

I was surrounded by an eclectic group, including a screenwriter who also considers himself a novelist, a personal essayist, and a newspaper editor. Across from me was a published author (several fantasy novels). She spoke of how great it felt to hear from kids who had read her books, or parents who were excited to try her work because their children loved it. One girl said she collected hardbacks and loves to see them lined up. None of them own e-readers.

A listening audience of 16 and 17 year-olds will hold a mirror up, that’s for sure. As they listened carefully, and I chatted away at super speed, what I saw in me was a gal full of self-publishing tips: someone eager to share what she’s learned lately about royalties and cover design, platforms and launch planning. In other words, I was all business.

I know this because I was also flanked by a young man who was curious but not “aspirational,” as he put it, when it came to writing. Yet he asked some great questions and stayed engaged the whole time. The personal essayist said she didn’t feel led to see her work published; she wrote for herself, for pleasure.

I can’t get either of these kids out of my mind, because they represent to me something I lose every day when I’m too much business. Whatever I do in this writing career, I must never lose the joy of writing. That “kid in a candy store” feel I had as a kid at age nine, writing pages and pages for any purpose, just because the spirit moved me–that little girl must stay strong inside.

When the young author shrugged that all her many books weren’t vetted by “real people,” I offered some thoughts about the demise of the Big Six (now the Big Four) getting replaced by The Crowd out there on the web, that can now tell you directly what The People want to read. But I wonder if I should have said, “No, no, no. Why did you write in the first place? For the supposed editors and agents and publishers–who I’ve left behind–or for you and your dreams? Whatever you do, don’t lose that muse, that passion, that vaulting ambition to put your words out there. At the end of the day, that is what we have, for sure. Nothing else is guaranteed.”

Even if years from now she views her earliest efforts as dross and nothing like what she can do now, she knows how important it is to finish what you start and stay committed to an idea, a character, a story. I wouldn’t be a self-publishing author if I didn’t have this drive.

Kids in a candy store have two missions: get massive quantities, and go for the sugar high. Writing has always been a grab fest, gulping down great words, addictive, and energizing. A rollercoaster charging down the hill, guaranteed to get you happy. 

Filed Under: teaching, the writing life  

Time Me. And Tie Me to the Writing Chair.

What was it I wrote in the hopeful, dewy-eyed early days of January? That chanting, copying and pasting, and acting confident would yield me lots of writing, O Me of Nonexistent Writer’s Block?

Image found here

That day, I defined writer’s block as “out of ideas.” Stalled. Ennui and paralysis. Of course that never happens to me, the hummingbird, with only two speeds–fast, and asleep.

Um, writer’s block can also be defined as highly-distracted, unfocused, Net-surfing behavior. That’d be a stalled writer right there.

The last few weeks I’ll find myself writing a sentence and stopping, then wandering somewhere else. I’ll have a short story open, my new dystopian YA novel open, and a blog post started. My email pings, and there I am. Full attention on anything but my priority writing for a good minute, and then I flit away.

Here’s the 4th strategy for New Year’s success, and it worked yesterday: set the kitchen timer for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and stay in the writing chair till it buzzes. If I’m tempted to close the page or navigate away, I say to myself, “Really? You can’t hang with this story for 30 minutes? Really?”

I slap my own hand and get back to work.

If you aren’t sure what fuels your writer’s block (distractedness, laziness, fear, self-hatred, paralysis, low self-esteem), cling to this: you’re probably stronger than you think. There have been some tough and ugly things you’ve done in your life. You’ve hung on and later said, “How’d I ever do that?” In other words, you might just have some grit.

As Todd Leopold of CNN writes in “The Success of Failure…,” “…being creative doesn’t require being Mozart. Stubbornness and practicality play a role, too. Studies of grade school and college students indicated they owed their academic success to such characteristics as curiosity, self-control, and what psychology professor Angela Duckworth termed ‘grit’–even if they were of average intelligence.”

And I bet you have a kitchen timer.

So if the simple strategy can be symbolized by a timer–that helpful device telling us when buns in the oven are done–it can be explicated thematically as a Ulysses’s pact: a decision made of our own free will that we demand others hold us to. In this case, us lonely writers must be both Ulysses and his sailors, but if that’s just too hard, don’t forget there’s that app Freedom that turns off your Internet or social networking access.

I mean, it’s great hummingbirds can fly 34 mph. It’s cool they can visit over 100 flowers a day or their hearts hit 1260 beats per minute; talk about racking up the numbers. But they also fly backwards.

Set that timer, Lyn. Set that timer.

This post is dedicated to the best mother ever who just sent her short story off to magazines. I’m proud of you, Mother!

Writing Prompts:

  • List three strategies that work to keep you seated and writing and also write down what you will say to yourself when you try to violate your own contract. Have a mantra or coaching line at the ready and pull that card in the heat of temptation.
  • What is your power animal, your totem, or just your favorite animal? What creature are you most like? Write a Day in the Life of you as this animal. Which behaviors best complement your life aspirations and your spirit? Which behaviors bog you down and send you backwards?
  • Write a story or poem about a person who has requested a Ulysses’ Pact. (Side note: How cool is it that my friend, Randy Yale, candidate for the 5th Congressional District, reminded me of this allusion–and now says elected officials and voters should enter into one? See his comment on my blog.)
  • You are no doubt stubborn and practical about certain things in your life. Write a scene from your life where you hang on by your claws or methodically put yourself through tedious paces. (Cleaning toilets, folding laundry, raking leaves, anyone? Raising children? Suffering meetings with particular colleagues? Serving customers?) Meditate on how these behaviors might translate to writing life. How do you make it through these less-than-scintillating tasks?

Are You Screening?

“Hey, Lyn, are you screening?”

— a friend calling our land line

Actually, I’m not screening. I’ve turned the phone away and the ringer off so I don’t see or hear calls.

That’s how writing gets done.

When was the last time you wrote 396 pages of a coherent narrative with believable characters, a protagonist with driving desire, and a page-turning plot that resolves satisfactorily? Yeah, me neither. I’d like to think I’m close, but that’s only after a year of revisions. One hour here, interrupted; two hours there, uninterrupted. It’s the uninterrupted time that gets the writing job done.

Modern life is not interested in deep reflection. It prefers breathless news cycles and explosive tickers and buzzing phones. Ring! means, Hey, stop and look at me! Buzz! means Stop thinking! An interrupted thought often dies; words hang off the edge of your page, bleeding energy. You look back at your words and ask yourself, What was I was saying again?

I’m having trouble getting into books lately and I know this is a bad habit of attention deficit bred by modern life. It doesn’t help I crank out thousands of words a week in my two jobs, either. Thankfully I can say I finished the amazing Room and can tell you about the beginning, middle, and end. I just embarked on Life of Pi and am struggling some with the opening. Is it because I’ve not been literary enough in a good while, having read so much YA I expect a payoff by page 2? Thank goodness I have such a rich history of reading that I can ask myself these unpleasant questions about my own behavior.

I know someone who lives for the phone. It rings, she jumps. If I lived like I used to, like her, I’d sure as heck talk to a lot of people and clean a lot more house while I did so. I’d wander into a lot more lanes as I drove. If I lived open to the latest distraction–and believe me, plenty tempt me every second on this computer alone–I’d never have written a novel or a short story collection or nuthin’.

So now that I’ve clarified that I’m not actually screening–I’m hiding–I must clarify that I don’t think I’m particularly special because I write. Everyone screens or hides or whatever we want to call it but we don’t like it when you screen us. I’m the same way; if I really need to talk to someone, I hate that all I’ve done by calling is activated the game of phone tag. Four tries later, at least two on each of our parts, we will locate each other. Strange world this is and yet I fully participate in the antics.

Modern life is so breakneck fast I felt the need to clarify my writerly stance against the sound and fury of everyday living. But for those who don’t write and those who pick up the phone all the time, you might prefer I reduce this post to three words: “Writers are freaks.”

Fine by me. Back to my pages.

Writing Prompts

— Do you have quiet space in your day? How do you define “quiet space”? How long is it? What do you do with it?
— When do you do your best thinking? Your best being? Why?
— Is your schedule to your liking or does it feel run by something or someone else? What runs it? Why?
— How often do you sit and think and what comes of thinking? Is it worry and endless loops of stress or is it meditation?
— When you are interrupted, how long does it take you to get back to what you were doing? What do you do to reduce interruptions? What’s your best tactic that you could recommend to others?
— If you are a teacher, how do you help your students reduce distractions, focus on the work or conversation at hand, and stay centered, both in class and at home?
— Write a poem or a story called “Breathless.”
— Write a story of 50 words about a life with no place to breathe. Define “no place to breathe” however you wish. Then write a 100 and a 500-word version. Which of these flash fiction pieces captures a breakneck speed and life at full tilt?
— Which people and things interrupt your day–in a good way and in a bad way?
— Do we have a right to live uninterrupted? Is there something inherently selfish wishing to retreat from the hubbub (defined as “a chaotic din caused by a crowd of people”)?

It’s All a Dress Rehearsal

“…we soothe ourselves during these waiting times with assurances about what we’re going to get at the end of it all. We are going to get exactly what we want, right? That’s the part that makes the waiting bearable, isn’t it? Otherwise Lent and Advent are just a big waste of time. Why do all this waiting and practicing and yearning if there’s no prize at the end? We like results in everything from our exercise programs to our business plans to our religious practices.”

–Marcia Mount Shoop, “Waiting”

So my novel is in the hands of agents, some of whom have requested partials and fulls, and it’s slimmed down to 86,000 words. So my short stories sit in various literary magazine inboxes, and my novel sits in the hands of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and James Jones First Novel Fellowship judges. I tell myself I’m waiting for their results.

Image found at Oilcrash.com

Then yesterday I reminded myself I wasn’t waiting. I’m living. And on that note, this morning I began the sequel to ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT.

Yes, I did the typically American thing: got myself back to work. Got busy creating again. My husband and I often discuss the healthiness of this approach, my tendency to fabricate brand-new deadlines for myself. I tell him artists fight for creating time, and then agree with him that sometimes life feels like nothing but an endless round of work for different masters, never mind the cleaning that’s not getting done while I write. (The tumbleweeds of cat hair are declared victorious.) And how do catch ourselves before that workaholicism devolves into a gross pursuit of the Rusty Old American Dream?

This is how I deal with waiting. I get on with the next project, and I dream more words till something new emerges. I guess you could say I don’t like waiting, so I make new work for myself.

Is it because I obsess and grasp after the perfect result–contract, book deal, movie deal? We are at our skinniest, loveliest, most charming when courting a new love, which is why so many people get tangled up in illicit affairs, escapist hobbies, endless deadlines, and any other pastime promising perfect happiness at the end of the road. As if the road has an end.

Of course there’s death, but I mean this life road: there is no full stop at which heaven will embrace us and we get that perfect balance of ready cash, loyal friends, svelte body, and riotous fun–or whatever we authors want when we achieve celebrity status.

I loved writing the first pages of the sequel. They’d been in my head a while, and what was wonderful about today’s writing was there was no pressure for them to be perfect. I understand from the long road ST. MICHAEL has taken and other novels before that how a manuscript morphs many times till it’s shaped just so. Today I saw the excesses, tangents, and questions in my new story right as I wrote them and thought, “No problem; I’ll deal with this later on down the road.”

That’s because I love the journey and for today, for a hour, nothing’s mattered but that. I cast not one thought the direction of the prize at the end of the road. Because there is no prize. There’s no amount of money, beauty, and fame that can replace the health and wealth of this unsullied moment of creativity.

Wow, I sound like a highly-evolved creature. Who’s that talking? That would be Lyn in a costume somewhat askew, not-quite-right stage face, who occasionally forgets key lines this last night of rehearsal. Because it’s all a last night before the show, all a dress rehearsal, since we don’t know what day the fullest stop of all may come and the show must go on into the spirit realm.

Writing Prompts

— Are you a process or a product person? A journey or a boon person? What do you most want to be, and why?
— What frustrates you most about the waiting?
— Writing needs audience, and if our writing stays underground, authors can suffer. How do you find ways to get an audience now while you’re waiting for bigger projects to ferment?
— How do you balance students’ need for audience and their need to learn about the writing process with its many stages? Do teens in particular need more prizes and gratification than long experiences of process? How can we give them enough boons along the road to keep them engaged while teaching them to commit, to delay gratification, and to revise again?
— How much process has your manuscript experienced? Do you feel in your gut you’ve shopped it out to agents too early?
— Read about a few of your favorite authors and find out about their process to getting published. What’s the average amount of years? Revisions? What obstacles did these writers use to fuel the next stage of the journey? How did they overcome disappointment, keep eyes on the prize, and not care about the prize too much, all at the same time?

How Do You Do It?

“I don’t know how you keep track of it all.” — from a colleague in reference to my workload

I like being a chef with multiple burners heating multiple pots, simmering full of somethin’ good.

I’m a concrete and a random worker, moving easily off one project onto another then to another, then back to the original. I’m also good at hanging in for the long haul. A writing workshop leader once told me I was an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs Inventory, which is a good profile for finishing a novel. Today’s writer can’t just be the lone warrior in the garret if she wants to be published. And while I’m not an extrovert who gains energy from others as much as I gain energy from being alone, I have just enough “I” to labor late over my writing tasks and starting early every morning.

Here are the six sections of my to-do list:

NEW NOVEL IN PROGRESS (REALLY, THE OLD ONE, PREQUEL TO ST. MICHAEL)
NOVEL CONTESTS, ST. MICHAEL (2ND NOVEL)
SHORT STORIES
NOVEL QUERIES
GRANTS
MARKETING

Each has at least two if not four bullets of tasks.

You have to find the joy in each demand. You have to love starting a new project like revising my old novel as a prequel or taking on a brand-new novella for NaNoWriMo. You have to love binding up a manuscript with huge rubber bands for the Bakeless Prize or Dana Awards, and you have to love scouring Poets & Writers for the latest information on literary magazines. Give your all to every bit of the process.

In “Why We Write: The Pressure of Young Promise” (latest issue of Poets and Writers) Laura Maylene Walter shares her long, arduous journey as writer without reward. If you slog and struggle daily toward your writer’s brass ring, you must read this meditation and then see the inspirational Editor’s Note.

Just this week, my former student and current friend, Teresa Smith Porter, felt her spirits flag. She’s a successful photographer (My Friend Teresa Photography) who labors to get the best shot and make her clients shine. But it was one of those days when she was tapped out and struggling to see the horizon. Then she got the call. She had won 1st Place in the Wedding Photographic Society Competition, Photojournalism category. Then she got another call: to do a spread for a magazine. Now it was one of those weeks you dream of. She’d had weeks like this before, but in between for every artist is the labor, the unglamorous, exhausting, driving toil. Bleary-eyed and dehydrated, she has posted at 3:00 AM on Facebook out of the sheer joy of loving her work. Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Do you love it? Writing. Do you? If you do, then make your list and keep your head down. Your spirits will lift, I swear by it.

How to Get Published: The Hero’s Journey, Part 1

“What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”

Joseph Campbell

While the manuscript breathes in the hands of kind and thoughtful readers, I’d like to invite all my friends to follow me on this hair-raising adventure we’ll call “Getting Published.”

The hero’s journey involves many stages, according to Joseph Campbell. And as a teacher who publishes how-to-write curriculum, I sure as heck better follow the stages of writing I preach.

First, the Call to Adventure. Like Dorothy walking out of the farmhouse door into Munchkin Land, or Luke leaving the burnt home of his aunt and uncle to seek revenge, I’ve walked through the door of my office into the wild world bearing a third draft of my manuscript. And lo, I have said, “Um, somebody read this, please?”

While some review the manuscript, I seek the guide who will help me get published– that Meeting with the Mentor, AKA, the agent.

Now, if I were Luke, Obi-Wan might just manifest, like it or not, and then I could dither around, refuse him, and finally acquiesce to my destiny. Or if I were Dorothy, I could stumble out of my house and happen on Glinda, who’d appear in a cotton-candy bubble with a sweet pair of ruby slippers. All I’d need were those and a kiss for the yellow brick road ahead. But in my case, I need to hunt down my Obi-Wan, that agent who will shepherd me through the dark and light sides of publishing.

So how does that magical meeting happen?

It’s the ugly out-takes nobody wants on film. Hours of research. Hours of figuring out whether this person I’m querying is the right fit; hours taking copious notes on submission guidelines. Surfing the agent’s blog and profile so I don’t make the mistakes of online dating: pursuing a potential match based on a picture or a few stray details. Writing multiple drafts of a query. Running those queries by people I trust.

Did you know the writing life was this glamorous?

Then, when the moment is right and the Force most active, I shall click “Send” and query a few agents at a time. Then wait. Then query my next list. And so on. (Did I mention this could take a while.)

Apparently, there are many writers out there who skip all these rules. They spam a whole slew of potential agents simultaneously when they haven’t even finished Draft #1. They ignore the very clear and specific guidelines on agents’ web sites. They misspell the agent’s name, they send bad pictures of their pets, they dangle some obscene participles, and perhaps worst of all, refrain from stating why this particular agent is the one being queried. Because apparently, in people’s lust for stardom, any agent will do.

I guess it takes all kinds to make up that pool of wannabes. Aspiring writers include that percentage who are like the recent college grad interviewing with a company. Less than 24 hours after his interview, he texts, DID I GET THE JOB? LMK. Agents are not your buds, your Facebook friends, your 24-7 advisors. They’re Obi-Wan stature. We must respect them.

Some would argue I don’t need a mentor, that this is the age of self-publishing and DIY. For some that process no doubt works, but not for me. This heroine needs a companion for the ride, a sage who knows both market and publishers. This heroine wants truth that a stranger, soon to become colleague, will tell her. Obi-Wan wasn’t Luke’s buddy, and neither was Glinda. We eventually have to listen to mentors, like their advice or not.

Dear Future Mentor: I promise I won’t be whiny like Luke, nor as skittish as Dorothy. I’m eager to test that light saber and don those ruby slippers. I’ll show you my mettle by querying by your rules, and I’ll show you my trust by believing in the Force that manifested this manuscript will also manifest You.

I know you’re out there.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Prompts, All Ages:
— What is the longest journey you have ever taken? Where did you go? Why? What made the trip long? What are your strongest memories of that trip?
— How is writing like a journey for you? Or, how is writing not like a journey for you? What’s it like instead?
— Have you ever wanted to write something that was so exciting to think about, you felt as if you were entering another world? What was that writing project? If you haven’t had that experience with writing, what other activity do you do that gives you feelings of adventure, escape, magic, and power?
— Who has been your best writing mentor — whether a favorite author, a friend/family member/teacher, or someone else? How did the person mentor you? What was that mentor’s special gift?
— You are recording a message for people hundreds of years from now. You must explain to future generations why the people of this year and this century engaged in the art of writing. Why do people writing? Why does today’s writing matter?

I Did It

“I lived to write, and wrote to live.”

Samuel Rogers

Draft #2 of my latest novel is done.

I wrote hot, and I wrote fast. For six months I wrote daily, and I printed out what I wrote and revised that. When I was too tired to create anew, I entered those edits. I also began some research and the findings fueled changes. I composed while I drove; ideas came to me constantly in the car, so a notepad was a tremendous help at red lights.

Now the draft is bound, courtesy of Kinko’s. I take it out today to a retreat space and I’ll read it like I just bought it. This experience will tell me what I need to change before I hand it off to a writing partner (we’re swapping novels) and a few who’ve offered to take a gander.

More drafts will unfold in the next months. I am on a relentless pursuit that is somewhat different from my last novel. That manuscript ballooned at one point to 1200 pages, then slimmed to 800, then got hacked to 400-something. I blogged about my intent to only add back in what was necessary, but after so many years and too much attachment, I no longer had an idea of what was necessary. So I shelved it after 15 years of relationship. There was no drama at this break-up; sometimes you know when a union is broken. Especially when you meet somebody new.

This relationship with this book has been very Johnny Cash-Loretta Lynn, we-got-married-in-a-fever, and I believe authors such as Stephen King would approve. Write the durn thing as fast as you can, letting plot and momentum drive the process. I did indeed. King also cautions, Don’t make life serve your writing. This is said by a guy who writes every day save his birthday and Fourth of July.

Life has somewhat served the writing of this lately. There are sacrifices of time for family, friends, and whatever it is the rest of you do on weekends. When you have a day job, it isn’t enough to write an hour or less a day. The weekend must be offered up, too.

Aside from the intensity, there’s little romance to the story of how I came to 400 bound pages. I applied seat of the pants to seat of the chair daily, and I printed out faithfully, and I carried the manuscript around like a wedding ring. So in a sense, it was a fly-by-night marriage, but the union is monogamous and faithful. I tried to sustain some short story revision and creation while the novel was being written, but that’s fallen by the wayside now. I just can’t see other people; it’s against my faith.

This morning, I know one thing, and it’s not just thanks to caffeine: I did it, and now, a new phase of the union begins. Revise, revise, revise.

Send me whatever they send couples on their six-month anniversary and I’ll send you photos of the celebration.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts:

— What is something you’ve done you are proud of? It does not have to be the biggest thing you’ve ever done. It could be that you made someone smile; that you helped someone who needed help; that you did something for the first time ever. Think about a time you made a new friend, learned to tie your shoe, rode a bike, sang in front of people, or drew a picture. Write about any of those times and how it felt.
— Have you ever met someone and right away knew this person would be a great, close friend? Write a list of all the things about this person that told you s/he would be your good friend.
— Imagine you have a time machine and you have just traveled back in history or forward in time. You land in a place you’ve only heard of in books. What place is it? You stumble on a magical book that will unlock the mystery of where you are and what you must do next. Write the first page of that book.
— Draw the cover of a book you would like to read. Then, write the paragraph that explains what this book is all about.
— Finish this sentence with 25 more words: The best thing I’ve ever done is…

Secondary & Adult Prompts:

— Sometimes it’s the little things that matter most. Think of a time that gives you fond memories because you accomplished something you hadn’t before–something small. It could be that you made someone smile or offered help; it could be that you came to a realization you’d never had before; it could be fixing something that was a mystery to you before. What happened? Relive that moment by writing about your experience.
— There is a phrase for a person with whom you just click: “kindred spirit.” Have you ever met a person and knew immediately that this individual was destined to be a close friend? Write a description of this person and your encounter. Then, if you wish, write a list of “how to know” someone is a kindred spirit.
— Imagine you have a time machine and you have just traveled back in history or forward in time. You land in a place you’ve only heard of in books. What place is it? You stumble on a magical book that will unlock the mystery of where you are and what you must do next. Write the first page of that book.
— Finish this sentence with 100 more words: The best thing I’ve ever done is…

Write Hard, Write Fast

“Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours.”

James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers

Today’s Word Count, New Novel: 350 pages

I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe things happen for a reason. So when a friend handed me The Art of War for Writers (thank you, Kevin), it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I was–and still am–in the midst of writing this YA novel quite fast. I began in December, and today I am writing the final big scene, where terror strikes and mayhem ensues. Soon after, the denouement, and then, as I swore to a writing group member, I shall be done by the end of May in time for a retreat.

My writers’ group call me a “writing machine.” I’m just doing what James Scott Bell advises: Acting like a professional. As he sees it, “A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn’t feel like it.”

So if I am truly a professional, committed to this business of writing, let it be the first thing I do every day. After coffee is brewed, of course. The best time for me to write is before 6:30 AM. I am less judgmental at that hour; a bit loopy, so the recent dreams still hidden in my subconscious I believe work through the writing. What I’m allowed to dream I’m almost allowed to write. (My writing’s not that bold.) It may be only 30 minutes at max, but things flow quickly at that hour. Freely, and that’s the adverb a first draft needs.

Or, at least my first drafts. As a teacher, I understand how learning styles vary, which impacts writing style. As my friend Bob puts it: “I think I’d have you write extemporaneously, maybe with an idea of where it’s going, get to that point, then stop and edit…the more you think about what you’re writing, the more you’ll put in peripheral details, and the longer the thing will be. My problem is the other way: I wrote poetry for a lot of years, then switched to prose. So now I have to fill in details to have the thing make sense after the first draft.” Poets strike me as pearl makers; they birth each word like a gem. Stories and novels are birthed in all kinds of ways, but just as they are told and heard, for me, there must be a certain forward energy that accelerates to the finish.

There’s another hidden step, and that’s revision of the first draft. As Benjamin Percy advises in his “Home Improvement” article in Poets & Writers:

I used to consider editing something you did once a story was completed. I now begin each day by reading what I have already written. If it’s a short story, I mean from the first line forward. If a novel, I mean from the start of the chapter I’m working on…So I’m essentially in a constant state of revision, and by the time I finish the story, I might have edited it two dozen times, turning it over and over in my hands, sanding it until it’s free of slivers.

As the kids say, “True that.” Or, if they’re not saying that, I’ll soon find out, because I don’t want dorky slang pretending at hipness. Diction will be one of many aspect of my revisions: ensuring that slang is appropriate to the zeitgeist and the narrator’s age but not so much clutter that my novel is like that big section of the Pacific floating with plastic. Overdone slang can’t outlive its time, and a writer wants to produce something lasting. And to get to lasting, I rework every single morning before I produce new material. Start where I left off, get into the zone, and then begin the new. Doris Betts told me when I attended the North Carolina Writers’ Network residency she taught that this was her preferred method as well.

Again, it’s no random occurrence that everything–time, people, advice–point in one direction right now, the “Just do it!” direction. Perhaps because my energy and commitment have shifted to that of professionalism, and therefore, I magnetize the opportunity to act like one. As someone who’s noodled over one particular novel longer than a decade, I can declare that this one, technically my third, feels like the one that is whole, more like one solid pearl, rather than a string of fake ones stretching deep as the ocean, going on and on beyond a reader’s interest.

People talk about muses. Bell and Percy are talking about muses working like pros. Show up to the page and the Muse may visit for a few seconds, or not. That’s okay, because she may be rousted from a twelfth draft of a certain page at a certain stage of revision. So what if the pages sometimes feel like sand between your fingers. Got to start with the hard grain that spurs the soft tissue to work its magic.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts:

— What is your favorite thing you have written? Is it a letter, card, or email? Was it a thank you? Was it a note to a friend? Was it your first story? Is it a poem? Tell why it is still your favorite.
— You have just landed on a planet where there is no writing, and the aliens there wish to begin an alphabet and a writing system. Give them a new alphabet and a writing system. Then give them some tips about what’s hardest and what’s easiest about being a writer.
— What was the hardest thing you’ve ever written? Why was it so hard? Are you happy now that you did it? Why or why not?

Secondary & Adult Prompts:

— Write down the ten hardest things about writing. Then write the ten easiest.
— What’s the hardest writing you’ve ever done? The easiest? Which gave you more satisfaction, now that you have perspective? Why?
— How do you define “professional writer”? Or, how do you know when you can call yourself “writer”?
— You have just been give the title of Writing Reformer. You get to change the rules for writing: how we teach it, when we do it, how we do it. You can start with how you were taught writing and how people talk about writing. Change anything, and create a list of new laws and rules to follow. Or, if you don’t like laws, come up with suggestions.

Since and Never: Where’s MY Final Four?

“There are two words when you compete that are interesting — ‘Since’ and ‘Never.’ I’m glad we’re in the ‘Since.’ Let me leave it at that.”

Coach Mike Krzyzewski

Duke’s in the Final Four and many a ticker on ESPN seems enamored with the fact that it’s been six years since Duke’s had a Final Four appearance. Many pundits point to this lull as a strike against Duke’s overall competence. No doubt, it’s a factoid other pundits use against many a team when they meet with success.

Coach K recently said, “There’s a reason why not many people win these things over and over again. It’s because it’s very difficult. You have a different team each year…Since 2004 we’ve still gone to Sweet 16s. We’ve won as many games as anybody the last two years. You’re not always going to win a national championship. You’re not always going to get to a Final Four. Those are difficult things to do. As long as we’re competing for it every year…So again, ‘Since’ and ‘Never,’ look at those words and see which category you’d rather be in. We like being in the ‘Since’ category.”

Interesting fact: Duke’s been to the Sweet 16 11 times in the last 13 years.

In a similar critique of the impatience and skepticism of our culture, especially the media, President Obama said yesterday, “Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm? You planted some seeds and they came out the next day. ‘Nothing’s happened. There’s no crop. We’re gonna to starve. Oh, no! It’s a disaster!’”

In the face of historic legislation, no matter what the verdicts centuries later will be, true wisdom advises: “Let’s wait and see.” Let things unfold in the now, and let the time for judgment come later.

So if my writing were held to the same standards as the pundits keep in politics and sports, I’d be told that it’s nice my next book (Teaching Julius Caesar) releases Monday, but, “Hey, it’s been THREE YEARS since your last book, AND that was with co-authors. So you’re telling me, you’re in your forties, and this is your FIRST book ever done solo?”

Why not instead, Wow, you’ve published three books since 2004, and, you tend to play well with others in order to get the job done?

It’s a flight of egotistical fantasy to claim I’m getting called on the carpet for anything. I’m no celebrity. But the voices in my head sound like the ones in the media. Those voices are eager to hate on any signs of success, and right now, no matter what your sports allegiances or your political affiliations, you can’t argue the fact K and Obama have been successful.

Perhaps my problem is that I keep staring at the nevers and not noticing the sinces.

If you knew from the age of seven your lifelong mission was to write stories, and your first one wasn’t published till you were 40, you might have some doubting voices in your head. See, I lead a dual life—my education writing and my fiction writing. The education writing brings great rewards, and while not an enterprise promising filthy lucre, I like to think my work helps teachers. I love to write lessons and constantly improve pedagogy. But fiction writing? A whole different beast. I work the craft daily, but the brass ring, the pot of gold, the Emerald City, it’s my Olympic challenge, and I’m not even Division 3 until after twenty-five revisions of a piece. Truly. I work for every word. And while I love, love, love the process, I sometimes feel many days that my sinces are slight and my nevers, overwhelming.

Even so, the writer must find joy in the moment. One must find the sinces and forget the nevers. The truth is, you can’t look outwards for reassurances of your competence, and you can’t look forwards with angsty impatience you may ultimately be a never.

I believe those who make it to the Final Four of writing are those who love the now and embrace what is.

And even if I had already written a YA series with the impact of Twilight, or a novel of the quality of Salinger, or how about literary fiction on par with Lahiri or Strout, the pundits, the critics, the haters would tell me it ain’t enough, and the echoing voices in my head would say much the same. Why else would those at the apex of society—celebrities of all stripes—struggle mightily with addictions? Maybe to escape all the voices?

Krzyzewski has 73 NCAA Tournament games—a record—to his name, and overall, 864. Then there are the three national titles and that little ol’ Olympic gold medal from the 2008 Games in Beijing. Even with all this, people still tell him his last few years are a lull, a dive, or a failure.

Us workaday writers, take note: shake off the inner and outer disdain. Look where you’ve been and where you are today. Love today. Don’t hate it. There are sinces to embrace, and if you really doubt, sit down at the desk, and start one, now.