Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Back from Retreat – A Few Takeaways

Cacapon Retreat GoalsBefore I left for my writer’s retreat I set some pretty ambitious goals. When I got there, I wrote them down on a wall poster and hung it in the room where I did most of my writing.

(You’re seeing an early version of it here in the pic to the left. By the end of the retreat, I’d finished many more items than indicated in the photo.)

When I completed a task, I made an “X” in the box to the left of the task and moved on.

Other members of the group also wrote their goals on the easel pad and hung it, and as we worked, we were surrounded by these wall posters of what we wanted to accomplish. (It was gratifying to see that I wasn’t the only one who’d listed projects that should have been done months — if not years — ago.)

It was interesting to see the different styles by which we all worked. My list had no priority order, and I chose the easiest/quickest items to complete first and cross of my list. For me, it was motivating to see items checked off, and I built momentum as we went along.

Another member prioritized his list, then started from the top, working on each item in 30 minute intervals. Once 30 minutes passed, he added a tick mark to the item and moved on to the next: his method for avoiding writer’s block or getting discouraged by the length of time one item might take.

Another member just started from the top of her list and worked her way down.

When we rented the cabin earlier this year, we’d planned to work on card tables in our own rooms, but the “great room” of the cabin was so spacious (and contained a fire place!) that we decided to work together at the large dining table.

I wasn’t certain how that was going to work at first, and it felt a little bit like being stuck in “study hall” in high school, but it worked splendidly. We were quiet and industrious, with the occasional question tossed out to the group. I liked it better — and got more work done — than our previous retreat (though I enjoyed that retreat very much, too).

During the previous retreat, we lived and worked in separate rooms, dormitory style, and only saw each other for meals (at which time we weren’t allowed speak to each other).

I found this retreat much more enjoyable, even if we tended to spend too much time (IMO) socializing at meals. As a group, we’ve already decided to rent again at this location next year.

I find the benefits of “communal” retreating to be:

  • Having the camaraderie of like-minded, motivated people who are on hand immediately to bounce an idea off of or ask for a quick critique
  • The “immediate” presence of other writers encouraged me to write, even when I didn’t feel like it.
  • By the same token, the presence of other writers discouraged web surfing, excessive solitaire playing and general cat waxing. (In fact, I didn’t goof off AT ALL…and didn’t feel deprived, either.)

Another thing I learned: Don’t take too much stuff.

All of us over packed, including on food. “Starving Writer” would certainly have been a misnomer for us.

Beyond food, we brought a printer, extra cartridges and reams of paper which we never touched, as well as office supplies, some writing prompt books, and other things we never used. I brought two novels to read. Although I read voraciously at home, I found when I tumbled into bed after writing all day I was too tired to read more than a page or two. I’ll leave those at home next time.

We did coordinate supplies: a “you bring this and I’ll bring that” kind of coordinating, but I think we’ll do more of that next time.

On the last day, I packed up my goals poster and brought it home. It’s now hanging on the wall over my desk. There’s nothing like staring at a list of “unfinished projects” to keep you moving. When I’m done with it, I’ll likely grab a new easel sheet and start another. And although I’ve got a ton more things to do than what’s on the list, I like the “finite” feel of the limited size of the wall poster.

Along with the poster, I’ve got an electronic “to do” list of things I need to accomplish now that I’ve returned. Many items on that list take the form of: “Send suchandsuch project to suchandsuch venue.” I’ve done a few of those tasks already, but I’ve more to do: all related to manuscripts completed on retreat (which might not have gotten done if I hadn’t gone away).

All in all: A huge success. It was a blast, and I’m ready to go again.

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

What do You Think of This Bookcase?

Expedit Bookcase from IkeaI’m thinking about buying this ‘Expedit’ bookcase from Ikea.

(Since I had to take everything out of my office and do it over, I thought I’d treat myself to some new bookshelves.)

It won’t quite fit in my space, so I’ll probably wind up buying three of the single stacks which are five cubes high, and create a 3 x 5 cubed shelf by smooshing them together.

I have a short bookcase on another wall that I might replace with a taller bookcase from Ikea in the same line.

I like the cubes because I can use some of the space for things other than books, like photos or art.

On the box-opening front, I’ve opened about 20 boxes and put the items back in the closets they came out of. I’ve weeded out nearly four boxes of items to get rid of. (That’s 20% of my junk, for you statistics-minded people.)

I’m happy with 20% at this stage of the game. I knew it would be difficult to toss out a lot of the items in the closet because the bookcase in there contains mostly genealogical materials: binders full of census data, photos, city directories, cemetery and military information. There’s not much “junk” that could have been tossed.

Unfortunately, a few of the boxes for the closet area were my own…full of old family photos and letters which haven’t gotten into binders. I’m putting going through those boxes on my “to do” list for next year.

(Next year’s to-do list is starting to look REALLY ambitious.)

The big disappointment today is that when I was filing some of those boxed papers back into the file cabinet, I realized that the movers dented up my file cabinet. It’s really bad, too. I can’t open the third drawer…. I hope they’ll replace it.

So…what do you think of the shelves? Yea or nay?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Reclaiming My Office!

The Fire and Flood Company brought my furniture back today!

I’ve found the boxes with the laptop docking station, keyboard and large-screen monitor, as well as a few other desk items: speakers, telephone, electric pencil sharpener.

::: EXCITED!! :::

I can’t wait to get back to working in my space. Working at the kitchen table since September has been a real bummer. Distracting, too. I’m hoping that getting back to my own space will be freeing, creatively.

This is what the front half of my office looks like right now:

Boxes in the Front of the Office

The thing I’m amazed at: the last box I looked at was numbered “70.”


And I packed 12 additional boxes from my doll cabinet. (I wouldn’t let them take those away for fear of something getting damaged or lost.)

So that means I’ve got at least 82 boxes of junk in just two rooms of my house.

I’m hoping that a great many of these boxes are books…because if they’re not, I’ve got a ton of stuff that has no place being here.

I’ve already told the Husband of Awesome™ that I anticipate that at least a third (I hope more) of what’s in these boxes is not going back on the shelves.

I believe this means parting with a great many books, and possibly some (published) manuscripts that have been lying around. I’ve been advised to scan them and toss the originals.

Closets and Boxes in the back half of the room.Here’s a picture of my double closets. Note the filing cabinet in one. I have a bookshelf in the other closet. I love the option of putting furniture in closets. It makes the space so much more useable.

Notice the non-brown boxes, devoid of pink labels? Those are my own. They’re numbered, too, but not in any scheme I can figure out. And, now that I’m looking, they don’t appear to be counted in the 70 (82).

Now, there’s a mystery I’m going to have to solve. The Secret Math Junkie™ inside of me is starting to wonder: How many total boxes? How many brown ones? How many are the 3 cubic feet version? How many are the smaller? How many contain books? How many contain paper? Etc.

It might take me a few weeks to get through it all, but in the end, you’ll have your report. 🙂

In the meantime, I find myself already with a plethora of packing supplies on hand. Anyone need any bubble wrap?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Starting Over and Getting Organized: Time to Focus

There’s been a lot of upheaval in my writing life lately, some of it spilling over from my personal and work life.

There’s the lost manuscript.

The mismanaged roofing job which resulted in water damage in the house.

The fact that because of said water damage I’ve been working out of my kitchen. (These high stools are killer on your back muscles when you’ve been sitting for a while…)

More stress at the day job than I can adequately describe in one sentence. (Trust me, it’s the stuff of a novel-length tell-all…)

There’s been some good stuff, too — I just had a wedding anniversary — but if the state of the kitchen table is any indicator of what’s going on: things are out of control.

It’s time to reign in and re-boot.

It also means focus.

I’ve been concentrating on the new stuff while I’ve got a pile of perfectly good finished stuff just sitting around. I’ve had some rejections come in (fact of life, folks, if you plan to be a writer) and I haven’t sent them back out to new markets yet.

They need to be sent off to new homes in hope of fosterage!

I haven’t decided if this current morass means I need to re-examine the goals I made in January. I need to dig out of the muck and see what’s left before I determine that.

So last night I updated my calendar from all the multiple input sources and printed it out through December 2012. (Just for fun, I stopped printing at December 21 and marked the end of the world. Remember: life is WORTHLESS without humor.) Then, I updated all my tickler files and writing deadlines.

Tomorrow… I have a class, so I’ll have to wait until Thursday to go through the finished projects and make plans for their distribution.

Then: I’m going to attack the unfinished writing projects like paying off debt: the projects which are closest to completion get written down first, thereby knocking out as many as possible, in as little time as possible.

And, damn the muse! I’m not starting anything new until all these are off my plate. (She’ll get me for that, I’m certain.)

How do you approach a re-organization?

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Are You More Productive During the Day or During the Evening?

Lighted Pen to Write at NightI got to thinking of writing productivity cycles when I got to work this morning.

I left the house at 5:30 a.m. in total darkness.

An hour later, I arrived at work: Pink skies lighting up the day, the sun finally cresting the horizon. Fairly soon, it will be dark when I leave and still dark when I arrive.

Inside, I did a little happy dance: fall means more writing for me. More time at the computer, more time with my butt in the chair, more time with my hands poised above the keyboard…because there are more hours of darkness than light.

(I caught myself thinking this morning: It shouldn’t be so dark in the morning, yet! Doesn’t this normally occur in October or November? I’m a firm believer that a.m. darkness should be accompanied by cool weather, a windy chill, and maybe some dry leaves tumbling by.)

Fall is my favorite season, but I’m never quite prepared for it.

Nonetheless, I’m tickled: not only do I love all those wonderful Fall things to embrace (orange and yellow mums, cool sweater days, crisp evenings on the deck, Halloween!), but I can look forward to putting more words on paper.

It’s not that summer has me playing hooky (though it’s true: I blew off more than a day or two of writing this summer to do something else.)

It’s that I find myself more productive — itchy to write, even — once the sun goes down. And with fall bringing shorter days and longer nights…well, it’s a no-brainer: I’m going to be racking up the word count. (And along with it, more completed projects, I hope.)

I enjoy writing at night. There’s something about the enveloping darkness that allows me to concentrate better.
What about you? Fall: love it or hate it? Do the changing seasons affect your writing? Are you a daytime or nightime writer?

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Writing Prompt: 200 Words Before Breakfast

Today’s prompt is all about quantity and nothing about subject matter.

Yesterday, Wil Wheaton posted on his blog Two Hundred Words Before Six in the Morning.

A single page, double-spaced, yields on average 250 words – less, however, if you’re writing poetry or dialogue. But if you can write one page every day, you can churn out roughly one novel a year (two, if you’re writing YA fiction.)

Can you do it?

Here’s Your Prompt: Write 200 words before something:  200 words before breakfast, or before your lunch break is over, or before you have to leave the house this morning.

Write 200 words before you’re finished drinking your coffee / tea / soda. Write 200 words before you have to pick up the kids from school today.

Do you work full time? Write 200 words before you start your workday, or before your morning meeting (admit it, you’re checking your personal email, right? Skip it, and write.)

Do you ride public transportation? Write 200 words before your stop. Or, 200 words before you arrive this morning.

Whatever you do today, write 200 words.

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Writing Prompt – Art for Inspiration

Van Gogh's Wheat Field with CypressesI’ve never studied art. You won’t find me going to museums to look at the artwork for fun.

Disclaimer: I have visited several museums in the US and Europe, including the Vatican, and have seen a great deal of traditional and modern art.

It’s just not my cup of tea.

That being said, I know what I like. There are certain pieces that “speak” to me in a way I can’t explain.

One of those pieces is Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses, pictured here. I have a framed print of it on my desk.

When I bought it, I wasn’t shopping for art. (I was shopping for books, what else?) I passed it by several times. I returned to it several times, picked it up, put it back down again. Decided to buy it, then not. I really dithered.

But something in it talked to me. I can see the wheat blowing in the field, the motion of the clouds, and to me, it doesn’t look like it was painted in 1889. It could have been painted in any year.

It’s more than a wheat field and a few cypresses: Van Gogh has painted a fantasy land…and whenever I’m stumped for the right description of something in a world I’m building, I look to it.

The beauty of it is I never describe the golden field or blue and white sky. The picture takes me further, makes me think deeper about my fantasy world. It suggests in a way, under the surface, that it never can with its overt snapshot of the field. There’s more there than meets the eye, and I see a little glimpse of it each time I look at the picture.

Here’s Your Prompt: Go looking for art. Hit a local museum or the library for art books. Do a Google search for Van Gogh or Michelangelo, a modern artist, a performance artist. Anyone. For more variety, go to Google Images and search for “modern art” or “traditional art” or drill deeper for sculpture, carvings, weaving, etc.

Look for something that “speaks” to you: something that keeps you coming back for more. Find a piece of art that draws your eyes away from others over and over again.

Once you find your piece, write a scene. The scene could be dialogue, description, action — anything — that is inspired from the artwork.

Next: put your scene away for a while (a week, two, longer if you can) and let it rest. Then, revisit the artwork. Does it inspire something different? Does it inspire something additional? Add that to what you’ve written previously.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Play Lists for Writing and Idea Gathering

Sheet MusicA lot of writers create specific play lists to put them in the mood when they write.

I don’t. I may choose a particular album or artist to write by fairly regularly, but I haven’t yet taken the time to choose a defined set of music for a project. It’s partially because I’m lazy – I don’t want to weed through thousands of songs to choose a small subset. Choosing would be hard!

Mostly, it’s because I don’t want to be limited.

What I like to do is decide how I’m feeling, or what it is I want to feel, and then I search my music database for songs which might match the mood. I say “might” because no database search is without its anomalies. You never know what you might find.

And this is a good thing.

For instance, yesterday I didn’t know what I wanted to listen to while I wrote. When I looked out the window, all I could see was the snow (and more coming down). No sun. No birds. A barren landscape.

A search for “barren” in my database found zilch, so I went with the more generic, “white” for the snow.

My database found 45 songs with white in either the title, the band name, or the the musicians’, producers’ or composers’ names. Songs were offered up by both Judas Priest (White Heat, Red Hot) and David Arkenstone (Nantucket).

There were several bands on the list I hadn’t listened to in YEARS (Crack the Sky, Yes, Def Leppard…)

It sounds like an atrocious mix, but I assure you it wasn’t. I was concentrating on the writing, not the music, after all. It didn’t matter when the music changed from red-hot-metal to new age. For the most part, it didn’t break the flow of writing.

Afterward, I looked at the list more closely. Those songs that used to mean something to me that I haven’t played in years…they gave me some ideas to play with: some writing ideas.

I knew I’d stumbled on to something good.

Do you use play lists? How do you choose and narrow down the songs for a work in progress?

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Motivation for Meeting Writing Goals

SpreadsheetAs you know, last year I didn’t submit to magazines as many “pieces” — my generic term for both fiction and non-fiction — as I wanted to. Though, if I’d planned it better (rather than completely focusing on other things) I might have.

And I might have had more than the three pieces accepted for publication.

One of my 2011 goals is focused on making more submissions (which will, I hope, lead to more acceptances). But other than setting myself a reminder on the calendar, I wasn’t sure how to make this happen.

And even if I did schedule it, how could I guarantee I’d have something to submit when the time came?

Today I stumbled on a method which might work, and I wanted to share.

I keep this spreadsheet (I love me some spreadsheets) which tells me just about everything I need to know about submission I make:

  • Name of the story/article/query letter, etc.
  • Type of submission (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Microfiction [added in 2010!] Query, etc.)
  • Where it was submitted
  • Date Submitted
  • Whether it’s still out or not
  • How many days it’s been out
  • Date I received a reply
  • Notes

Over the years it’s evolved (via much writing procrastination and cat waxing) into a document which tells me yearly totals and percentages of each of those, how many total submissions I’ve made in my writing life, what kind of stories I’ve placed more often, average days out, etc.

(Yeah – there have been days when the spreadsheet, rather than the WIP, has ruled my life.

But, I digress.)

Spreadsheets being what they are, I add a line at the bottom when I’ve made a submission and all the formatting is automatic. I usually close it fairly quickly unless I need to reference something. End of file.

But, today, I added 30 blank lines at the bottom of the file….which are begging to be filled.

Such a small, visual change…but seeing the blank lines has me itching to fill them (and motivated to write something new to submit) – as soon as possible. I’m fairly confident I’ll make, and probably exceed, this 2011 goal.

What tricks do you use to motivate you?

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Autumn Already? ‘Tis the Start of Something New…

On my way to work this morning I saw a leaf fall, and then several more.

Autumn already? I thought, accelerating around a curve only to find three deer in my path. I slowed, and they leaped into a nearby hayfield.

So…I’m seeing deer in the morning again, leaves are beginning to brown and drop from trees, and school is starting. It’s early yet, I know, but I’m thinking of new beginnings.

I usually feel this way in January, when like countless others, I try to get my act together.

Maybe it was prompted by a blogpost by fellow Broad, Hunter Liguore, of Sword and Saga Press. Her article, The Fear of Writing struck a chord within me. It begins as an essay discussing the various reasons people don’t allow themselves to write, but morphs into a strategic plan for getting writing done. For folks who are already writing, but (perhaps) lament their lack of time or discipline, the tail-end of Hunter’s post is where the real meat is.

I’ve always advocated using little bits of “found time” to get writing tasks done, but Hunter goes so far as to suggest stealing time from other activities in order to gain a large block of time you can devote to your writing. It’s a different way of looking at things, and makes a lot of sense.

And it all starts with a making a list. Hunter refers to it as a “writing actions” list, but in my mind, it’s a to-do list. When you wake in the morning, you should plot out all the writing items you want to accomplish during the day. For example, this might be a typical list for me:

  1. Write 500 words.
  2. Plot chapter 2.
  3. Research five possible agents.
  4. Draft a query letter.
  5. Find a market for a completed short story.
  6. Edit a previous chapter.

Once you know what you need to accomplish, start considering what you can do during the day (at work or between classes or kids’ naptimes) in order to leave you more time for the most important tasks. I call it using “found time,” Hunter calls it stealing. Call it what you want, it’s often all that’s needed for added productivity.

For instance, I have a clipboard filled with blank paper in the car. While I’m waiting at a stoplight, I usually plot out a scene, write 30 – 50 words or jot down some ideas for a story. You can do the same while standing in line at the bank or waiting in line at the local coffee shop.

Instead of using these “found bits,” Hunter suggests using time you may have devoted to another task. Say your morning routine takes an hour. Can you shave off 15 minutes by altering it? Use the time to plot a scene or return emails (so you won’t have to do it later and cut into your writing) or do your evening chores with that morning block of time, thus freeing it later for writing.

Hunter offers other good suggestions, and has written an oath you can take to commit more time to your writing. (Is taking an oath to silly? Perhaps you won’t feel obliged to honor it, even to yourself. But, you could print it out and leave it in strategic places around the house to remind others not to bother you while you’re writing.)

I keep a running to do list of writing items, but I like Hunter’s targeted approach. With this change of the season, I’m going to give it a try.