Writing Prompts: A Hate-Love Relationship

“I don’t have TIME for writing prompts. I have serious revisions to work on!” 

Those were my thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my writing group met without anyone’s writing to workshop. We’d made a commitment, as a group, that when this happened, we would do writing exercises. Whoever hosted that week got to assign one.

My writing colleague/friend chose, “Create a list of scents from your childhood, good and bad. Then pick one and write about it.”

Luckily I LOVE my writing group. So I submerged my bad attitude in a pool of pleasant acquiescence. Inside I was thinking, “Argh. I’ve just ripped the guts out of chapters 5-8 of my new novel–the last thing I need is to be freewriting about my childhood!” But I followed instructions.

Here’s what my pen wrote:

Most people would call it a stink, not a smell: goats and their manure, goats and their milk. Goaty. Yes, hay is involved, and other sweet notes: warmth; cream; the nuzzle of a muzzle; baby-goat lips; that conversational “meh-eh-eh.” But mostly: ew. Little pellets everywhere, like those imported chocolate cordials, only made of shit. But they didn’t smell like shit. They smelled goaty. Hearty. Healthy. Researchy. Unique. Cute. Intelligent. Second-class but proud of it—“alternative,” like my school, my entire childhood. Goat Barn. Who has goat barns? No one I knew. Who could tell proud stories of being butted, of making “milkshakes” by bouncing a goat on one of the gangplanks across the muck? Who could use a goat as a safe spot in a game of tag and turn her teats into milk-guns?

Don’t worry. This stroll through the goat barns of yore is not going to cause a sudden veer toward memoir. I’m still working on chapters 5-8, and I’m still blogging about–as you see–whatever I feel like.

But this writing prompt, unwelcome as it was, did me an unexpected service: it reminded me of how important my weird childhood is to me, how I treasure that uniqueness…

My folks still have a goat or two, just for funsies.

…like everyone treasures his/hers/theirs. How we define ourselves gives us the courage to move forward. Sometimes that self-definition inhibits, and boy, when that happens, we have work to do. But when it empowers? We need to run with that.

So now, when my revisions start getting the better of me, when I start to wonder, Is this work even worth it? Is anyone even going to read this? Who cares?…all I have to do is think about that goat barn. And I’m armed “to the teat” with a powerful sense of worth.

Darn right, I have a story to tell. I was practically born in a barn. Thanks, Writing Prompt!

That same writing friend also shared this post, “On Hating Writing From Prompts,” by Alice Lowe, on Brevity’s Blog. Writing? You’ll love this. You know why.

 

 

My New Year’s Resolution: Keep Writing New Year’s Resolutions, Damnit

Who cares if I still have an unworking Stairmaster in my barn?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have either fixed my Stairmaster machine or gotten rid of i])

Who cares if I’m still in the middle of Chapter 16 in a 21-chapter book? 

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have finished the first draft of Altitude (Book Three of the Flying Burgowski trilogy) and be actively re-revising the first half]

Who cares if I never got beyond the “we should get together for a walk or a cup of tea sometime, huh?” stage of inviting someone I don’t know well for a walk or a cup of tea?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have invited someone I would like to know better for a walk or a cup of tea]

As I wrote last year, “The secret to success is having really low standards.” It’s also, I believe, the maintenance of the feeling of forward progress–the alternative to which is stepping into that swamp of grumpiness and self-pity where the only escape is too much chocolate…you see where this leads, right?

So let me take a minute to celebrate the two resolutions that I DID keep last year:

  1. riding my bike in to work at least as often, if not more often, than driving: check!
  2. developing a fitness regimen that includes daily strength and stretching exercises: check!**

** ahem ** Honesty compels me to admit that I officially adopted said fitness regimen all of **cough** four days ago…but HEY. I’ve kept it up for four days, in 2015, so that still COUNTS.

023 (2)

And all of those so-far-unkept resolutions are just that, I’ve decided: not failed, just late bloomers. Who’s in charge here? That’s right. So here are my new low-resolution resolutions:

By the end of 2016 I will have…

  • Finished, revised, and published Altitude
  • Kept up my biking vs. riding to work ratio
  • Kept up my daily fitness regimen (the secret to success here was  Son Two’s idea: “Why don’t you do it while you watch The Daily Show, Mom?”)
  • Made reservations for a 2017 trip to New Zealand to research my next novel (New Zealand?! Good on ya!)

…oh, and that Stairmaster? Maybe the unknown person I invite for a walk or a cup of tea will help me figure out what to do with it.

Got a resolution to share? Don’t believe in ’em? Tell me about it either way. And…Happy New Year!

Attention, Tired Authors: Put Your Audience to Work

Sometimes my teacher training pays off (or maybe just my social-butterfly personality). When I applied to do an Author Event at Third Place Books in Seattle, and their application said, in essence, “Don’t even think of just standing there and reading; what do you plan to DO with your audience?”, I put that training (and that personality) to use.

I made my audience do all the work. 

First, I made everyone move to sit next to someone they didn’t know. They had to introduce themselves to their new seatmate.

Next, I made each pair play Fast Fingers. “Put your right hand behind your back. With your partner, count to three. On three, bring your hand out showing anywhere from zero to five fingers. First person to call up the total number of fingers showing wins that round. Best of three. Go!”

Five seconds later, my whole audience was laughing. Thirty seconds–relaxed, and ready for the next step…

…where I passed out discussion cards. I had four, and after each one, the paired discussion was followed by whole-group discussion led by people who wanted to share what they and their partner had talked about. Since my books feature a heroine who can fly, these were my questions:

  1. Have you ever had flying dreams? If so, describe them. If not…do you wish you had? Why/why not?
  2.  If you could fly, what would you do with that power? (Seriously!)
  3.  If you could fly, what would you worry about?
  4.  How might flying help solve any problems you have,or how might it have helped you in the past? How might flying create more problems for you?

Sure, after that, I read a couple of scenes out loud, and then I answered a few questions. But the main part of the Event was made up of a bunch of grown-ups enjoying the hard work of thinking and talking about “What if…?” No matter what a book is about, whether fiction or nonfiction, if you wrote it, you can easily think of dozens of thematic questions to pull an audience in. And you get to sit back and enjoy the discussion! Win-win.

002

So, that’s my tip for other authors, should you be one, or know any. Don’t let those nice folks just sit there looking at you–put ’em to work. (And then reward them afterwards with treats. 🙂 )

But while I have your attention: who says good audience questions have to limit themselves to a book store? How about answering some of those questions above? 

Road Trip V, Days 18-20, Durham, N.C.: Community Lessons For a New Author

One year ago this week I proudly debuted my first novel at the bookstore in my hometown. Yes, Durham is 3,500 miles away from where I live now, so The Regulator didn’t figure to loom large in my new author “career.” But this week, as The Regulator hosted an event for my second book, I realized it had taught me a lesson.

Author readings are not about the author. They’re not even entirely about the work. They’re about community.

Just the author? What else ya got?

Just the author? What else ya got?

Think about it. You’re a busy person. What would make you take time out of your week to sit and hear an author read? You might be enamored of that particular author and happy to get a close-up view. You might wish to ask questions, or get an autograph. But for an author like me, I know you’re there mainly to support the idea of authorship. You are accepting a role in the literary community. Authors need to honor that role.

So here are three new tenets I’ve adopted:

1) Involve community members, especially kids, if possible. I’m a very good reader, having practiced with my two sons and 20 years of students, but still–just my voice, my presence? After my debut reading, I decided I could do better. Now, if I can, I stage dramatic readings with myself as narrator.

Now this is more like it!

Now this is more like it!

2) The beginning is not always the best place to start. I’d thought starting anywhere else would require too much explanation, but audiences catch on quickly. And in the case of my first book, the Prologue is one of the saddest sections. It took me most of the way through Chapter One to cheer the group up again. Since then, I think about it from their point of view and try to choose the most entertaining part. Duh.

3) Offer cookies afterward. Hey, these nice people are giving up an hour of their busy lives to support me. The least I can do is say “thanks” the most tangible way I know, with butter and chocolate.

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School--my alma mater--with their teacher who used to be mine!

Terrific students from Carolina a Friends Middle School–my alma mater–with their teacher who used to be mine!

I have a big reading coming up next month in Seattle, and I have some more ideas for that one. What other Lessons in the Obvious have I to learn?

So I’d love to hear what else folks might have experienced. What makes an author reading stand out for you–other than, of course, the written work itself?