Fresh Start 2019: Five Strategies to Jumpstart Your Writing Practice After the Holidays

 

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Getting back into regular writing mode after the holidays can be a challenge. After weeks of celebrations and shopping, writing may have been the furthest thing from your mind. If you’re still struggling to restart your writing practice two weeks into the New Year, here are some tips to get you back on track.

1. Start small. Set a daily goal of either time duration (15 minutes, for example) or word count (200 words or so). Short-term goals will be easier to achieve, and once you achieve them, you feel you’ve accomplished something significant. Do that for several days and pretty soon, you will naturally expand your goals to writing for 30 minutes or longer and reaching higher word counts.

Another smaller goal might be to write a 500-word essay, short story or op-ed piece before jumping into a novel. That way you can break down the writing into smaller chunks over several days. By the end of that first week, you’ve finished one project and you can move on to a larger, more challenging piece.

2. Make an appointment with yourself. If you are fairly reliable about keeping appointments, make one for your writing sessions. Write them down on your calendar just as you would a doctor appointment or a client meeting. Putting the appointments in your calendar will serve as a reminder to keep with your writing schedule. It will help you maintain consistency with your practice. Even if your session is only for 15 minutes, seeing it in your calendar will motivate you to keep that important appointment with yourself.

3. Meet with a writing buddy or a mentor. Sometimes having someone on your side who supports your endeavors can motivate you to keep up with your practice. Making a coffee date with a writing buddy or a mentor and talking shop for an hour can spur some interesting story ideas and keep you motivated. If you are the competitive type, you might be galvanized into action when you find out he/she is churning out pages of copy while you’re still eating holiday leftovers. A mentor can help you redouble your efforts and give you a long overdue pep talk, so you can start writing again.

4. Attend a write-in session. Write-ins are open, public forums for people to spend quiet, uninterrupted time writing on whatever piece they’re working on. Write-ins can take place anywhere and are usually sponsored by a library, university or writers group. It usually doesn’t cost anything to attend. Just bring your laptop or a notebook and pens, and your imagination. Then be prepared to write for as long as you wish. The extended quiet time helps you focus on your current piece with little or no interruption.

It’s also motivating to be surrounded by other like-minded creative individuals who are working toward similar goals. There’s a silent camaraderie in an environment like that, which is why it presents a great opportunity to jumpstart your writing practice. Because once you start writing in an environment like that, you want to keep the creative juices flowing. Check local libraries, universities and writing studios to see if there’s a public write-in near you.

5. Learn something new. Take a class or attend a workshop or lecture. There are numerous cheap or free classes you can take online or at a local community college or studio. One two-hour session may be all you need to inspire you to write, and the session doesn’t even have to be writing-related. Take a cooking class and watch how the instructor mixes ingredients. Listen to a podcast or participate in a webinar about money management or astronomy – whatever piques your interest. Sometimes focusing on a completely off-the-radar topic can spur some wildly imaginative ideas. And it’s just plain fun to learn something new.

Experts suggest it can take six to eight weeks to form a new habit, so it may take that long to get back into your writing groove. Be patient with yourself. The world was not built in one day. Neither will your novel. Try any one of these baby steps to jump start your writing practice.

Taking a break happens to all of us. The key is getting started again right away. Don’t let too much time pass. It’s a lot like falling off a bike. After you fall, you have to dust yourself off and jump back on the bike. Then just keep pedaling. You’ll get to your writing destination in no time.

Fresh Start to 2019: Three Writing Prompts to Brainstorm Story Ideas

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This is the first of a series of posts about starting fresh for 2019. With the New Year upon us, many of us look to start new habits or activities. I’ll address some of those fresh starts as it relates to work, life and writing. In this first post, I will share writing prompts to brainstorm story ideas and boost your writing practice.

Starting a writing practice is difficult, but it’s nearly impossible without a story idea to work with. There are numerous sources of writing prompts to get you started, of course, but they can be so narrowly focused that they may not fit what you want to ultimately achieve.

Most writing prompts deal with one of three themes: the past, the present or the future. With this in mind, you really only need three writing prompts to help you brainstorm story ideas, one for each of these themes. Let me show you how.

1) I Remember… (or alternately, “Remember when”)

Using either of these prompts helps you reflect on the past. It’s ideal for memoirs, stories about growing up, attending school, family dynamics and vacations. Incidents that seemed insignificant when they first occurred may have more meaning now as you reflect on them. That reflection is the basis of your story.

On a sheet of paper, write the phrase “I remember” at the top. Then give yourself five or ten minutes to complete the phrase.

Examples include:
“I remember when I nearly drowned in our family’s swimming pool.”
“I remember attending my first Blackhawks hockey game with my father when I was 11 years old.”
“I remember the day my younger brother was born.”

You get the idea. Keep going with your list until time expires. You should have plenty of ideas to work with to begin writing. It may even lead to a collection of essays that you can publish in the future.

2) I Believe

From the past, we move to the present with the prompt “I Believe.” This prompt explores how you are feeling in the present moment. Those beliefs can be about anything: politics, relationships, raising children, your career. But the common element is your beliefs, your values, what you see as important in your life at this moment. Because the focus is on the present, this prompt is most useful for defining subjects for op-ed pieces and personal essays.

Examples include:
“I believe many pet owners treat their pets better than they treat other humans.”
“I believe all colleges and universities should provide free tuition.”
“I believe I was fired from my job because my boss didn’t like me.”

Once you have made your list of completed “I believe” statements, you can begin to explore your feelings further, beginning with why you believe the way you do. It might be helpful to back up your belief statements with statistics, survey results and other research that will give your statement more credence.

3. What if?
If you’re more forward-thinking, the prompt “What if?” can help you imagine all sorts of possibilities about the future. It helps you create worlds that don’t currently exist. What is different about this prompt compared to the previous two is that it does not hinge on any emotional content. “What if?” is non-personal, non-judgmental and more objective. This type of prompt is ideal for creating fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries and thrillers. Of the three prompts, this is the one you can have the most fun with because there is no limit to what your imagination can conjure up.

Examples include:
“What if the city of Chicago was invaded by zombies who climbed out of Lake Michigan?
“What if scientists finally found a cure for AIDS, cancer or some other disease?
“What if a woman was elected President of the United States?”

If you’re feeling stuck with your writing and are looking for new story ideas, these three basic writing prompts are all you really need to kickstart your efforts. Start with one, make your bullet list, and then let your imagination do the rest.

In Memoriam: Authors We Lost in 2018

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Many talented writers, authors and journalists left our world too soon in 2018 – individuals who shared their perspective, insights and imagination, so we could all gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

Below are some of the more prominent writers who have passed away. Whether you’ve read them or not, they all hold a place in the literary world that will not be forgotten.

In alphabetical order

Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain began his career as a chef, but broadened his work into writing and TV. His memoir “Kitchen Confidential” showed the underside of the restaurant business, while CNN’s “Parts Unknown” series engaged and challenged to not be afraid of trying new things.

Sue Grafton – The mystery writer famed for her alphabetical series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) actually died at the tail end of 2017, but I felt compelled to include her name for 2018 fearing she might have gotten lost in the last season’s holiday shuffle.

Stan Lee – the genius behind the Marvel universe and the architect of the modern comic book, his legacy will be experienced in print and on the movie screen for decades.

Ursula K LeGuin – Science fiction/fantasy author who often explored feminist themes in her novels also wrote a number of children’s books.

Philip Roth – Prize-winning novelist of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral.”

Anita Shreve – Author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and 18 other novels died in March 2018.

Neil Simon – The playwright and screenwriter behind notable works such as “The Odd Couple,” “Lost in Yonkers,” and “The Good-bye Girl.”

Thomas Wolfe – Known in some circles as the white-suited wizard of ‘new journalism’, Wolfe chronicled American culture in novels such as “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

One other noteworthy death belongs to a non-writer, Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library, which you might have seen around in your neighborhood. Bol built the first little free library in 2009 in the shape of a schoolhouse in honor of his mother, who was a teacher and loved books. Like his deceased peers, his legacy will hopefully live on in neighborhoods for many years to come.

Who Needs Resolutions When You Can Create a Three-Word Theme for 2019?

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Photo courtesy of Hubspot Marketing 

Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Most people don’t know how to make them so they’re able to keep them. And most of those resolutions are unrealistic anyway.

Think instead about a general theme for the New Year, something that will guide your actions, not just for one day, but for the entire year.

Here’s what I mean. In 2013, I made several ill-advised career decisions that put me into financial and emotional debt. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of what was really important to me. So at the start of 2014, I came up with a simple three-word phrase as a guide for the rest of the year. I chose “Reclaiming Your Life” as my mantra, and that phrase guided me to make better choices about my future.

When I first started this blog, I wrote about three-word mantras in terms of career missions. You can read that post here. My comments then still hold true. A three-word theme can relate to one specific aspect of your life, like your career or your relationships, or your entire life. The important thing is to come up with a phrase that resonates with who you are today and what you want to achieve.

As we enter the first week of 2019, I’ve come up with new phrases – two of them, in fact, to guide me throughout the year. “Rewrite my story” not only refers to one of the novels and the numerous essays and short stories I’ve begun writing and haven’t finished, but also my own life story. I’m not changing anything about my past – that has already happened. But I do think about how I can change the direction of my life moving forward.

The second phrase, “Say Yes More” is intended to be more accepting and welcoming of everything that comes into my life – new people, opportunities, invitations.
How would I – or any one of us — rewrite the course of our lives if we said yes more?

Here’s another example. Perhaps you are going through a major transition in your life, perhaps a career change or a divorce. You might use the phrase “Build a Bridge” to connect from your past to your future. There are numerous other possibilities. Try one of these for yourself, or create your own.

* Believe in Yourself
* Believe in Others
* Find Your Passion
* Speak Your Truth
* Treat Others Kindly
* Act with Compassion

No matter what you choose for yourself, your three-word phrase should consist of three elements.

1. Be action-oriented. Begin your statement with a verb — Build, Find, Act, Believe, etc. The verb drives the action, like the engine of a locomotive. You’re not waiting for something to happen to you because you are the one driving the action. It’s proactive rather than reactive.

2. Make it positive. A positive tone and message is more inspiring and motivational. With a positive three-word theme, you’ll want to follow it all year long.

3. Focus on your power as an instrument of change. What influence do you want to make in the world? Do you want to help others, heal others, write, build homes or make people laugh? Or do you just want to be a better human being?

Once you’ve come up with your theme, write it down and put it somewhere where you can see it every day, like the refrigerator door or the bathroom mirror. Every time you see it, think of it as an active meditation.

Instead of a general theme, you can make it project-specific. For example, if you need motivation to maintain a writing practice, try the phrase “Write 500 words” or “Publish a story.”  When you see those messages on your mirror every day, it serves as a reminder of what you want to achieve and it can help you stay on track of your goal.

The three-word phrase works because it’s short, it’s action-oriented and it’s positive. There’s also a rhythm to the sound the phrase makes when you say it, especially if you choose words with a single syllable. For example, listen to the pattern of sound when you say “Speak Your Truth.” It’s like a heartbeat – boom, boom, boom – and that heartbeat is coming from you.

Make New Year’s Resolutions if you want. Or you can take a different approach with a three-word theme to guide your actions throughout the year.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!

2019 Reading Challenge: How Many Books Can You Read in One Year?

 

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Looking for a way to challenge yourself in 2019? Do you love to read and would like to expand your knowledge of genres and writing styles, beyond John Grisham legal thrillers and self-help books that leave you feeling more confused than before? Then follow along with me on a journey through books.

Announcing the 2019 Reading Challenge. Here’s how you can participate.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to read one book from 26 of the 40 categories listed below. That equates to one book every two weeks.

For an added challenge, see if you can read one book from all 40 categories. If you complete all 40 categories and there’s still time in the year, reward yourself. Either take a break from reading or read anything you want. You’ve earned it!

I won’t be handing out prizes for this challenge. The only prize is the pride of personal achievement, unless you want to reward yourself with a well-earned gift, like a massage or a copy of the latest New York Times bestseller.

I have participated in reading challenges the past two years. The experience has been rewarding. Not only have I expanded my book knowledge, I’ve discovered new authors and genres I didn’t think I would like (paranormal romance, anyone?). And I had so much fun and a sense of pride each time I crossed a category off my list. As 2018 winds to a close, I’m on Book #42.

That’s why I’m sharing this reading challenge with you. If you love books as much as I do, you won’t turn down this challenge.

So for your reading pleasure, here are the categories. Remember, the first-level challenge is one book from 40 categories, one for every two weeks of the year for 26 total books. You can read them in any order you choose.

1. Autobiography or memoir
2. Historical fiction
3. A classic
4. Young adult novel
5. Mystery/thriller
6. Science fiction/fantasy
7. Romance/romantic suspense
8. A non-fiction book
9. True crime
10. A self-help book
11. An award-winning book (Pulitzer, Edgar Award for mystery, etc.)
12. A book you read in your childhood
13. A book you read in school
14. A book/novel published within the past year
15. A book/novel published more than 100 years ago
16. A book/novel published the year you were born (this will require some research; check Google)
17. A first-time author/debut novel
18. A book by an established author you have always wanted to read but haven’t until now (Example: I’ve never read Stephen King fiction, so he is on my list)
19. African-American fiction
20. Latin fiction
21. Native American fiction
22. A book made into a movie or TV show
23. A book recommended to you by someone
24. A book set in your hometown
25. A book set in a foreign place
26. A book written by someone younger than you
27. A book with a place/location in the title
28. A book with a number in the title
29. A book with a person’s name in the title
30. A book with a color in the title
31. A book with a one-word title
32. A collection of short stories
33. A collection of essays
34. A play
35. A book about sports or an athlete
36. A book that features an animal (Example: Seabiscuit)
37. A holiday-themed book (Christmas, Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, etc.)
38. A book that can help your health (nutrition, fitness, etc., but no recipe books)
39. A book that can help your career/business
40. A book with more than 500 pages

The challenge begins January 1. Of course, if you want to get a head start, you can start today.

Have fun! Let the reading begin!

‘Justice’ Is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year

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Looking back on 2018, it seemed that most news stories, with the exception of sports and weather, dealt with some aspect of justice. It comes in many different forms too: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, and more recently, environmental justice. It is no wonder that “justice” was named by Merriam-Webster.com as its top word of 2018.

The concept of justice has many interpretations — from legal and technical to philosophical, the dictionary site explains, and today’s news stories attempt to explain what those concepts mean in our society. As we enter 2019, we will all continue to grapple with what justice means for our lives.

Second on Webster’s list is ‘nationalism’, a word that President Trump used in a speech in October where he described himself as a ‘nationalist.’  Nationalism is defined as “loyalty and devotion to one nation, particularly exalting it above all others.” Nationalism is not to be confused with ‘patriotism,’ which is defined as “love and devotion to one’s country, but not putting it above all other countries.”

The third top word on the 2018 list is ‘pansexual’, a word that actress/singer Janelle Monae used in a Rolling Stone article to describe her sexual orientation and preferences. The prefix “pan” means “all” or “complete” so the word pansexual may be a useful alternative to bisexual.

Other words topping the list include:

* Lodestar – meaning one who serves as an inspiration, model or guide

* Epiphany – a sudden perception of essential meaning or an illuminating realization

* Feckless – ineffective or worthless. In a rarely used antonym, ‘feckful’ means efficient or effective

* Laurel – Did you hear the audio clip that went viral? Did the voice say ‘laurel’ or ‘yanny’?

* Pissant – Derogatory word used by a radio DJ described the daughter of Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady

* Respect – A tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and her legendary song. It comes from the Latin word ‘respectus’, meaning “the act of looking back.”

* Maverick – An independent individual who doesn’t go along with a group or party. Often used to describe the late Senator John McCain.

* Excelsior – Stan Lee’s motto and salutation often concluded the monthly column he wrote for Marvel Comics. Comes from the Latin word meaning ‘higher’.

For more detailed explanations about these words and their origins, check out Merriam-Webster.com.

The top words were determined by the number of times they had been looked up on their site for meaning and clarification.

This annual list, as fun as it is, highlights why we still need to use a dictionary at times, to not only understand words and meanings, but how those meanings evolve over time and impact our conversations and our writing. It’s also a wonderful way to add to our vocabulary. Who knew there was such a word as ‘feckful’?

Last year about this time, after the 2017 list was revealed, I made my list of words for 2018. Among the words I listed were: backlash, harassment, impeach, bi-racial, isolationism, nuclear, resurgence, and bomb cyclone. I even made up a term, global cooling, to describe the cool reception the U.S. would receive after Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

So what words do you think will be in the news in 2019 that will have you running to the nearest dictionary? I have a few in mind. Some are repeats from last year’s list, including ‘treason’ and ‘harassment’. In addition, look for the words ‘equity’, ‘collusion,’ ‘reform’ and ‘vortex’ to hit the news one way or another.

Merry Christmas!

Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Business Communicators

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Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for gifts for the writer and business communicator in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the Writer’s Digest holiday gift guide.

1. Books. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and their library is complete. They might have a dictionary, but since they are updated annually, it never hurts to give the writer on your list a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer or communicator should be without their supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers begin writing their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider giving them a really nice stylish pen set (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put them in a more serious frame of mind when they write. Add a stack of notepads or legal pads, and your writer friend will be well stocked and ready to write before the New Year begins.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers and communicators. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro. Writer’s Digest also offers online workshops.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Exercise your brain and jumpstart your creativity with a magnetic word game. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’ Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins as the Storyteller and begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller. All these options are sure to be fun for you and the whole family.

7. A book of writing prompts. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

8. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I once saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

I hope these ideas give you a head start on your gift shopping for the writers in your life. And don’t be shy about giving a gift to yourself. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.