Tired of Staring at a Blank Page? Begin Writing with a Story Starter

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Staring at a blank page is one of the scariest experiences for a writer, no matter how much experience they have. It’s one of the most common objections people have about starting a regular writing practice. “I don’t know what to write about!” they cry.

Story starters can help you fill that blank page. Story starters are word games and activities to help you generate story ideas. Not only are they great at helping you flex your creative muscles but they can also prompt you to look at events in your life in unexpected ways. Most important, story starters can help you stay motivated whenever you feel stuck or want to take a break from your current work-in-progress.

So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, try one of these starter activities to help you fill that page with prose.

1. Writing prompts. Perhaps the most popular story starter is the writing prompt. As the term says, a writing prompt poses questions or fill-in-the-blank statements to stir your imagination. For example, “Whenever it rains, I like to…..” Or “If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?” There are entire books devoted to writing prompts or you can find them on sites like Writer’s Digest, StoryaDay.org and Self-Publishing.com. Or you can revisit my previous post about writing prompts here.

2. Word lists and associations. This technique was popularized by author Ray Bradbury who often used it to brainstorm story ideas whenever he felt stuck. First thing in the morning, Bradbury would jot down whatever words came to mind. Then he’d look at whatever connections they made to each other, or in some cases, how they prompted a memory. By combining some of the word associations, he was able to form the basis for a story.

3. Dreams. If you are an active dreamer, I hope you keep a notebook at your bedside to jot them down. That way you can remember them later. The longer you wait to write it down, the more likely you will forget important details. Dreams have a way of revealing issues we’re dealing with in our lives, sometimes when we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. Maybe you felt yourself falling helplessly in a dream, or you were being chased by an unknown being. Try to capture that scene as well as your emotional response. You never know when dreams can serve as the premise for a story or a scene in a larger work.

4. Visuals, such as artwork or photographs. Is there a painting, sculpture or photograph that moves you or inspires you? What do you see in that image? Each piece of work conveys different meanings to different people, so what you see in a painting will differ from what your friend sees. The next time you see a visual that moves you, try to write a story about that image or about the artist. What do you think inspired them to create this piece?

5. Maps. Lay out a world map on your desk, or find a globe. Then close your eyes and let your finger drop down to a place on the map or the globe. Wherever it lands is the backdrop for your next story. Imagine what it’s like to travel there, or create a character who is from that region. Maps can guide you to a story set in faraway places.

6. The news. You can’t escape what is happening in the news these days. Current events and TV news programs are filled with interviews with experts, personal profiles and events. They can look at one story from different angles. Perhaps someone in the news provides inspiration for a character in your latest short story, or a news feature can spark fresh story lines you might not have considered.

7. First line game. Think of a first line of a story, then keep writing to see where the story takes you. Or for an added challenge, find a first line from any novel you choose, then create your own different story from that first line.

8. Dictionary word game. For this activity, all you need is every writer’s best friend – the dictionary. Open the book to any page, close your eyes, then with your finger point to a word on that page. Then open your eyes and see what word your finger fell on. Does that word conjure any images in your head? If that word doesn’t work, scroll up and down the page for another word that strikes your fancy. The important thing to remember is that the word should somehow resonate with you, conjure up images that have meaning to you. For example, perhaps the word you settle on is “cantankerous”. What image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the image of an elderly uncle whose gruff manner frightened you as a child?

9. Favorite object. Do you have a favorite object that has special meaning to you? Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you own, a book you’ve read, or an ornament you picked up on your travels. Perhaps you owned something that is missing or broken. Describe the object and explain why it meant so much to you.

10. Observations. Look around you and describe what you see. It could be a cat sleeping on your desk while you work. It could be a person you see on the street who started digging around a nearby dumpster looking for food, or a doorman in front of an apartment building who smiles and says hello to everyone walking by. Just jot down what you see, what they are wearing, what they are doing. Simply observing the world around you can spark a scene or short story.

With so many story starters to work with, you won’t have to search hard for stories.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

What’s Your Legacy, and How Can Writing Help You Achieve It?

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Photo courtesy of Little Free Library

No doubt you’ve seen the Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood where you can go to borrow books or donate a few in return. No questions asked. No fees to pay. No librarians or book sellers to talk to. Just you and a Little Free Library to connect you with other readers in your neighborhood.

What a brilliant idea!

The Little Free Library program is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. (Check their website for special events and discounts.) LFL was the brainchild of Todd Bol to honor his mother who was a school teacher. (Hence the school house designs.) Sadly, Bol died late last year, but he leaves behind a tremendous legacy of literacy and learning and sharing.

In a society that’s become increasingly “shareable,” (ride-sharing, home-sharing, etc.) somehow the idea of sharing books anonymously seems kinder, gentler and not so intrusive. Unlike other shareable businesses that have monetized their services (think Uber and Airbnb), Little Free Library is a non-profit. Though they sell their patented little treehouses on their website, it’s the free exchange of books and the experience of sharing that brings the most value. The people who benefit most are the users, readers like you and me who love to read, who love to collect books and who love sharing what they’ve read with others.

In that way, Bol was a genius. He might have created Little Free Library for his mother’s memory, but you and I are the benefactors. That’s a tremendous legacy to leave behind, hopefully for years to come.

That leads me to wonder about my own legacy. What do I want to create that will have lasting meaning and value? I pose those questions to you as well. What do you want to achieve with your writing, your art or your small business that will make the world a better place?

In the writers’ group I belong to, several members joined because they had personal stories that they wanted – and needed — to tell. One man is writing stories so his teen-aged daughters will understand his personal history and their Asian cultural heritage. Another man is writing a memoir to inspire other young people that it is possible to survive a complicated and emotionally difficult childhood to become a better human being. Yet another member, a young girl still in college, writes to simply bring joy to others. These are their chosen legacies. None of them are focused solely on being published. Instead they hope to publish with a purpose.

I suspect that when it comes legacies, it’s difficult for some of us to choose what that is, or even what it means. Susan Bosak, founder of The Legacy Project, says legacy is about life and living. “It’s about learning from the past, living in the present and building for the future.”

More specifically, she explains that legacy is “an interconnection across time, with a need for those who have come before us and a responsibility to those who come after us.”

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Knowing what a legacy is doesn’t make it any easier to decide how to manifest it in our lives. To help sort through it all, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How would you like children and grandchildren to remember you? If you don’t have children, maybe you have nephews and nieces that you can leave your legacy to, or perhaps someone else’s children?

2. What do you see as your primary place or purpose in life? How did you come to that conclusion?

3. What lessons have you learned from your life experiences?

4. If you could solve one problem in our world – and only one problem – what would it be and why?

5. What is your superpower – your best talent? How would you like to use it?

6. Can you tell your life story in six words? (To learn more about six-word memoirs, check out Smith Magazine.) Breaking your life down into six words really cuts to the heart of what’s important to you.

To create a legacy, you first need to see the bigger picture. Then you can begin to write. Writing in and of itself is not the legacy, but a vehicle for achieving the higher purpose through your stories.

Five Lies About Writing That Can Derail Your Writing Practice

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When it comes to maintaining a writing practice, we tell ourselves a lot of lies – not being good enough, not having enough time to write, not having any good ideas, writing is easy, etc.

Why do we tell ourselves so many lies? More important, what are we basing them on? Whose voices do we hear when we hear those lies? Perhaps it was some offhand comment someone said to you many years ago that you took to heart? Or perhaps it’s someone else’s belief that you adopted as your own, even though that person is no longer alive?

Those lies often act as barriers to your writing. If you get too far ahead of yourself,  you may hear that voice again. That’s when self-doubt kicks in. You slow down or stop writing altogether. That’s no way to engage with your writing.

Maybe it’s time to dispel those beliefs and get real about your writing practice. Maybe it’s time to re-frame those internal messages into more positive ones so you can enjoy writing again.

Below are the most common “lies” that you may have told yourself at one time or another and how you can dispel them once and for all.

Lie #1: “There’s not enough time to write.”
An old friend of mine once told me that he didn’t realize how much time he wasted until he started grad school. Once he started classes, he became more aware of how he was spending his time. “We waste a lot of time,” he told me with a shake of his head.

The truth is we fill our days with busy work, much of it meaningless. If you claim that you’re too busy to write, what are you “too busy” doing? How do you know that you don’t have time to write if you have never tracked your activities throughout the day? Are you using your time as efficiently as you could?

Try this exercise: For three consecutive days, keep track of how you spend your time. Include one weekend day (for example, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Set up worksheets from midnight to midnight with fifteen-minute increments for each day. Be honest with yourself. Once these worksheets are completed, take note of any gaps in your schedule. Are there pockets of time where nothing is happening? Can you split up a segment of time? For example, if you get an hour for lunch, can you set aside a half hour for writing? Or if you spend most Saturdays watching marathon episodes of your favorite show on Netflix, could you swap out one hour for writing instead?

By seeing your activity in print, you’ll likely find ways to re-allocate your time so you can spend more valuable time writing.

Lie #2: “Writing is too time-consuming.”
How much time do you think you need to establish a regular writing practice? Thirty minutes? An hour, perhaps? Many people believe writing is time-consuming based on some preconceived idealistic vision of what a writing practice looks like. They imagine an overly large oak desk in a drawing room with lots of bookshelves and French doors that open up onto a garden with a view of the lake in the distance.

This scenario is far from the truth. (Hence the schedule assessment). More likely, writers are squeezing in a writing session during their lunch hour or on a bus ride to work in the morning. Most have full-time jobs, families to raise, obligations to the community. They don’t have a lot of time to indulge in fantasy, but they do make time to work on their craft.

The truth is, many writing experts say you only need ten to fifteen minutes a day to establish a regular writing practice. If all you need is ten minutes, you can write anywhere. Check your activity assessment again. Are there gaps in your schedule where you can squeeze in ten minutes of writing?

Lie #3: “There is nothing worthwhile to write about.”
Many aspiring writers stop writing because they think they don’t have anything worthy to say, no interesting stories to tell. But ideas for stories are everywhere if you remain aware and alert for them.

Engage with the world around you. Notice the people walking in the park or through your neighborhood. What are they doing? Riding a bike, feeding the birds, playing with their kids? Observe the other passengers on your next train ride to work or in the coffee shop you hang out. How are they dressed? How are they spending their time? Quietly and unobtrusively listen to the conversations around you. Note how two people speak to one another. In hushed tones so as not to be overheard? Or loud and emotional, as if they are having an argument?

There is plenty to write about. You just have to be aware of your surroundings to be inspired.

Lie #4: “Writing is not a worthwhile career.”
If you believe that writing is not a worthwhile career, go to the nearest bookstore or library, open up a magazine or newspaper or browse the Internet. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for writers. Sure, it may be tough going at the start of your career, or even in mid-career. But that has never stopped writers from writing. You may have to work a dull nine-to-five job to pay the bills while you hone your craft. But ask anyone who has ever been published and they will tell you that writing brings them joy. That in itself makes it worthwhile.

Lie #5: “Writing is for sissies.”
Writing is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you are writing a novel or a work of non-fiction, writing is a slow, agonizing process, complete with false starts and writer’s blocks. Your first draft is usually junk, and you’ll have to go through several editing passes before an editor or publisher believes your latest project is worth sharing with the rest of the world.

The key to progress is consistency. You can work on your latest masterpiece and still it may not be good enough to be published. But writers are the most courageous and heartiest of souls. They risk rejection constantly. Even after they’ve received fifty rejection slips, they dust themselves off and try again.They’re willing to toil for years on one project that is close to their heart, just to see it come to fruition. This writing life is definitely not for sissies.

Remember you are in charge of your own writing practice. You set the schedule and the parameters for success, however success means to you. Once you become aware of the self-defeating beliefs, myths and assumptions affecting your writing, you can flip the script. Rewrite the assumptions as fact-based truths. Then use them to redefine your writing practice.

Are there any lies that you used to believe in that nearly derailed your writing career?

24 Quotes about Writing by Women Who Write

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight some of history’s most prominent female authors. In their own words, here are their thoughts and musings about writing and the writing life. Let their words be an inspiration and motivation for your own work.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, either from the collection below or one that is not represented?

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

“I could not write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Jane Austen

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self; to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Toni Morrison

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings,  specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course, you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“You must not only know how to write, but you have to be privately, personally, sound at the core. Not sane, but sound. If not, it always shows.”
Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

“To write something, you  have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but one which makes you think.”
Harper Lee

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Margaret Atwood

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”
Sandra Cisneros

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
J.K. Rowling

“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us.”
Alice Walker

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Invention, it my be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
Mary Shelley

“When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.”
Amy Tan

“After awhile, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
Alice Hoffman

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
Louisa May Alcott

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.”
Isabel Allende

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
Ann Patchett

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.”
Annie Proulx

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.

There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.

So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.

1. Close friend or spouse
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.

Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.

2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.

A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.

3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.

Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.

4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.

There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.

The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.

6. An agent
If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.

Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.

Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.

Get Motivated to Write with a DIY Writing Retreat

 

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I’ve been reading about do-it-yourself writing retreats a lot lately. I became intrigued about these retreats after reading an article on Writer Unboxed, which provided some practical insights about planning one. After further investigation, I was surprised by the number of articles about writers’ retreats. There’s even an e-book that can be purchased on Amazon.

Writing retreats, especially in exotic locations, sound like a dream. Imagine sequestering yourself for days in a quiet place to focus on your writing, with occasional breaks for meals and hiking and sleeping. Think of it as a solo getaway to inspire and motivate you. But writing is a solo activity, and sometimes you need a change of scenery to unblock yourself and perform more creatively.

If you have ever considered attending a writing retreat, you know how pricey they can be. Most writers I know don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on a retreat. But many writers who have planned DIY retreats say you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a fancy hotel and air fare or go to exotic destinations.

Sure, it’s nice to meet other writers and attend workshops to immerse yourself in your craft. But it’s not always possible if you are short of time and money.

To plan your own writing retreat, here’s what you need:

1. Create a vision for your writing retreat. Think about your definition of a writers’ retreat. What does it mean to you? What does it look like? Where would you go? Would you confine yourself to a library for a few hours or would you spend an entire weekend at a hotel? What would you do during the retreat? Would you do only writing, or would you take short breaks to explore the neighborhood, practice yoga or read up on your craft? You are in charge of planning your retreat, so it can be anything you want it to be. If you’re unsure what a do-it-yourself writing retreat looks like, here’s one example.

2. Start small, then work up to larger retreats. If you are a busy mom with young kids, you may not have the luxury of spending a few days away to write. Consider a short-term solution, such as a morning at the public library. Offer to house sit or pet sit for friends when they go out of town, and use their home as a writing sanctuary. Other low-cost options are a hotel lobby where there may be quiet reading areas, an unused room at the local park district fieldhouse or a neighborhood community center, a hospital lounge, or a university library. Some would argue a coffee shop, but they can be fairly noisy if there is music playing.

As you do more of these on your own and as you earn more from your writing, you may decide to venture on to larger retreat experiences involving groups of people. Writing is a solo journey, and meeting with other writers can be stimulating and socially rewarding.

3. Decide if you want this to be a solo adventure or a group outing. There are advantages to both. Going solo means you are in charge of your own schedule, you don’t have to meet up with other people and you can do what you want on your own terms. Some writers have organized retreats with other writers to share the experience, swap ideas, and motivate each other. However, if you’re doing this for the first time, going solo might be the better route.

4. Pack everything you need. Obviously, bring along your pens, notebooks and your imagination. Let go of any guilt or preconceived ideas of what you think you will accomplish. Remember to bring along books to read, especially books about the writing craft that may be collecting dust on your bookshelf. Be sure to bring a battery recharger too.

5. Re-treat yourself. Once you’ve done one or two retreats, you’ll want to do them more often. It’s like eating potato chips – you can’t eat just one. Commit to a mini-retreat once a month or every other month or even once a week. A mini-retreat can be a few concentrated hours on a Saturday morning or an entire weekend at a hotel or B&B. Planning repeated retreats shows your commitment to yourself and to your craft.

Other tips:
Do-it-yourself retreats don’t have to be just for writers. They’re perfect for aspiring entrepreneurs planning their business, artists looking for inspiration from nature, or students studying for exams.

If a retreat is beyond your schedule or budget, look into write-in programs at your local library or university. These write-ins are usually free and open to the public and give you a chance to work quietly along with other writers. Snacks are usually provided so you don’t have to take a break for meals. It’s a great opportunity to engage with other writers and immerse yourself in your writing. You can stay as long as you want, whether that’s for an hour or the entire day. The one downside is that they are planned events that may not fit your schedule.

That is why planning your own do-it-yourself writing retreat is such a cool idea. Need ideas for planning one? Check out the following articles:

Create your own mini-writing retreat
Introducing the DIY writing retreat
If you build it: Do-It-Yourself Writers Retreats

12 Ways Reading Every Day Can Improve Your Life

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February’s theme is “For the Love of Books”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about our collective love of books – from finding books on a budget and downsizing a book collection, to honoring our libraries and independent bookstores and showcasing the best resources for book clubs.

The good news – perhaps the best news – is that books are alive and well, thank you very much. It doesn’t matter if you read books with an E-reader or the traditional print version, reading is more popular than ever. One wonders what any of us would do if we did not have books to read.

Much has been written about the benefits of reading, including scores of scientific evidence of its neurological and physiological benefits. Studies find that reading just 10 or 15 minutes a day can alter your brain’s functioning power.

A recent Lifehack article outlines some additional benefits to reading. Here’s how reading books can transform your life.

1. Reading stimulates the brain. Recent studies show that reading can slow the cognitive decline in dementia patients. The brain may not be a muscle in the traditional sense, but it can act like one in that it must be worked frequently to improve different cognitive functions, such as memory and math skills. The more you read, the stronger your brain becomes.

2. Reading expands knowledge. The more you read, the more you increase your knowledge of the world. Non-fiction helps you understand current events, science, technology, relationships and even your own pets. Meanwhile, reading fiction gives you insights into human behavior and motivation. Reading expands your view of the outside world.

3. Reading helps increase vocabulary and writing skills. As any professional writer can tell you, if you want to improve your writing and vocabulary, read a lot of books. Be aware of the writing styles too. As you read, it’s helpful to keep a dictionary handy in case you come across unfamiliar terms. Author Susan Reynolds in Psychology Today suggests firing up your writing brain by reading complex literary and non-fiction subjects, like science and art, which forces your brain to think more deeply, a skill that will help you become a better writer.

4. Reading is a form of relaxation and helps reduce stress. The most relaxing activity I know of is reading. Even reading for 15 minutes a day can slow down your heart rate and help you find your center again. Reading provides an escape from the pressures and problems of your day.

5. Reading increases tolerance for life’s uncertainties. A study cited in The Atlantic magazine finds that reading and writing can increase a person’s tolerance for uncertainty. Study participants who read short stories were less likely to need cognitive closure – to reach a conclusion quickly or were less likely to have an aversion to ambiguity and confusion. Reading teaches them that sometimes there are no clear cut solutions to problems and that not all stories end happily or at all. Fiction readers, especially those who were avid readers, were able to think more creatively and not get tied down to one idea.

6. Reading teaches empathy. An article in Real Simple magazine suggests that reading can help you understand a person’s emotions and motivations. By reading about different characters, whether fictional or true, readers can observe human behavior in action. When dealing with real life scenarios, they’re more likely to empathize with people going through difficulties.

7. Reading provides quality “Me Time.” Life can be stressful, and sometimes you want to get away from it all. But if you can’t take a vacation, immersing yourself in a good book is the next best thing. Think of it as a vacation for your mind. And because reading is a solo activity, it provides the quality “Me Time” most people crave.

8. Reading improves critical and analytical thinking skills. If you’ve ever read a spy thriller or a mystery novel and followed the clues to figure out “whodunit,” you’ve learned to use your analytical skills to solve the mystery on your own. Likewise, quietly observing plot development, character development, dialogue and story structure as you read along improves your thinking skills. But you don’t have to read just mysteries to achieve this. Non-fiction books can do the trick as well.

9. Reading helps improve focus and concentration. When you spend time alone with a book, the rest of the world just seems to fall away. When you read, you block out all outside distractions. It helps to turn off the TV and the radio too, which do little to build your brain’s cognitive function. The more complex the book, the more concentration and focus will be required.

10. Reading sets an example for kids. A friend of mine, who is an avid reader, once told me that she reads in front of her two young toddler sons so she can set an example for them. Studies back this up. Kids can develop an interest in reading early on simply by watching their parents read, or better yet, hearing their parents read out loud to them.

11. Reading can help you sleep better. Studies show that reading before bedtime can improve the quality of your sleep, as long as you read a printed book rather than an e-reader or tablet. The light from these devices can interfere with sleep. I’ve had nights when I lie awake at 4 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. After reading for a half hour or so, I’m drowsy enough to get back to sleep.

12. Reading provides cheap entertainment. Reading is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment you can find. It doesn’t cost much to read a book (unless you purchased the book brand new). The only cost is the cost of the book, but even that can be minimized if you buy second-hand or borrow it. If you’re on a budget, reading is a low-cost option to entertaining yourself.

How Book Clubs Can Enhance Your Reading Experience

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Our February theme continues: “For the love of books”

Many years ago, I wandered into my favorite local bookstore called Transitions Bookplace & Café (which sadly, has since shut down) where they were hosting a book discussion meeting. I can’t recall what book they were discussing – something about mental health and relationships, I think – but the discussion drew nearly 50 people, far more than the store management anticipated. The group leader had difficulty keeping the conversation on track, and in fact, one particular man monopolized the conversation by talking about his own personal troubles. With so many people in the room, it was difficult to hear what individuals were saying. The group leader tried on several occasions to get the discussion back on track and to get more people involved in the conversation. Out of frustration, I finally left.

Other friends of mine have had more positive experiences with book groups. The key is to keep the group small, at least eight members and no more than 15, say experts, so it will be much easier to manage the discussion.

Starting a book discussion group can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s better to simply join one. Whether you start a club or join one, think about all the different ways a book club can enrich your life and your reading experience. In addition to providing a means for socializing, a book discussion group enables you to:

* Learn about new authors.
Joining a book club opens up opportunities to read works from authors you may never have heard of. Or maybe you have heard of them but never read anything by them previously.

* Become familiar with different genres outside of your own interest. For example, if you don’t usually read nonfiction books, book club members may decide as a group to read two or three nonfiction books per year. As long as you’re open-minded about reading non-fiction, the experience can broaden your literary knowledge.

* Hear and discuss opinions and perspectives from other members. When you give everyone a chance to express their opinion, you learn to be more comfortable discussing complex and controversial subjects. Hopefully, you also learn to be more patient to give each member a chance to speak. You learn to listen, and though you may not agree with others’ opinions, you hopefully learn to respect their differences.

* Improve your capacity for literary analysis. When you’re part of a book club, you read books differently with an eye on discussion points. You might still enjoy the book, but you’re not reading just for pleasure anymore. You may also take notes while you read so you can prepare to discuss the book more thoroughly. It forces you to think more critically.

* Improve your ability to articulate ideas. Book discussion groups provide an outlet to test out ideas and formulate opinions. Book worms aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking their minds or sharing opinions. But with practice, more shy types can feel more confident in presenting their views in what they perceive to be a safer environment.

There are numerous sources online to help plan and participate in book discussion groups. Bookbrowse.com offers advice for starting a group, leading meetings and choosing books to read. The American Library Association offers tips for managing a book discussion group and provides some suggested questions in instances where there is no discussion guide. Also check out Bookmovement.com, which helps book clubs organize their book reading lists, maintain contact with their group members, and help clubs learn what other groups are reading. Reading Group Guides, a sister site to the Book Reporter, provides their own review guides for current releases which you can access by book title, author name or by genre.

With so many resources available and so many books to read, you’ll never run out of topics for discussion for your book group.

The key to a beneficial experience is to commit to the group experience. Going just for the food, drinks and socializing isn’t enough. Be on time, show up and stay engaged. Most important, be open to reading different authors and genres, participate in the discussions, and enjoy the camaraderie with friends over a shared love of books.

Readers: Are you involved with a book discussion group? What has been your experience?

Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.