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

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.

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Seven Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Writing Practice

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Some months ago, I attended a writing workshop on a Saturday morning sponsored by a local writers group. Over one of the breaks, I chatted with the man next to me, an attorney who had recently married. I asked him what kind of writing he did. His answer? “I don’t have time to write. I have a busy law practice and I just got married,” he said rather sheepishly.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the inconsistency of his remark. He claimed not to have time for writing, yet managed to find time from his supposed busy schedule to attend a three-hour writing workshop on a Saturday morning. What’s wrong with that picture?

For many of us, it is far easier to think about, read about and talk about writing than to actually sit down and write. We’d much rather make excuses about why we don’t write than to examine the reasons why we don’t.

A writing practice, as I define it, is a regular, consistent routine of putting pen or pencil to paper (though some people prefer to use a computer). The amount of time devoted to the practice differs from person to person. But whether you spend two hours a day or fifteen minutes a day, the key is consistency. A little bit of writing every day slowly and gradually builds up your practice. And the more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will feel about your writing. The more you practice, the more progress you will see which gives you more momentum and motivation to keep writing.

Not everyone is mentally or emotionally prepared to begin a writing practice, however. They may have questions about starting a writing practice – lots of them. And they may have self-doubts and fears, either about the writing practice itself or about their own abilities as a writer. As a former colleague once told me years ago, “Fear and self-doubt will kill every opportunity that comes your way.”

So before you embark on this writing journey, ask yourself the following questions. The answers will help you to ‘get real’ about your writing practice.

1. Why do you want to begin a writing practice? Why is a writing practice important to you at this point in your life? Answering this question determines how strong a desire you have to write. If you’re still unsure of your response, answer this question: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not important at all and 10 being very important), how important is writing to you?

2. What do you want to achieve with your writing? To eventually get published? To pass along family lore and legends? Or just have fun?

3. What does your writing practice look like to you? What notions, if any, do you have about how much time you should spend on your writing, or where you write? Many of you may have preconceived ideas about what your writing life looks like – about how much time you should spend each day or how many words you should write, what your office space looks like, etc. However, the reality often looks different from the fantasy.

4. What obstacles, excuses or conditions hold you back from starting and maintaining a writing practice? For most people, time management is an issue. Let’s face it, we all lead busy lives. But some people are more willing to adjust their schedules so they have more time to write. Remember, it’s not about having the time to write, but about making the time to write. Those with the greatest desire to write will make the time to write.

Suspense author Mary Higgins Clark was a widow living in New York with five children to support. She had to work to support her family, so she got a job writing radio scripts. Still her desire to write was so strong that she made time in her busy schedule to write her first novel. For two hours every morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., she set her typewriter on the kitchen table and wrote. Clark could easily have made excuses for not writing. She didn’t, and she went on to a very successful career.

5. Do you have a dedicated space for writing? If coffee shops are your thing, more power to you. Or like me, do you prefer quieter places, like the library, so you can think, plan and create?

6. Do you have a support system? Are there people in your life who not only provide encouragement and input about your writing, but also respect the time and space you need for writing?

7. How much time are you reasonably willing and able to devote to your practice? If you were to keep a log of your activities for three consecutive days, I bet you would find gaps in your schedule where you could sneak in a writing session. We’re not nearly as busy as we think we are.

The more you understand your motivations and desire to write, the more prepared you will be to begin writing. If the motivation and desire to write isn’t strong to begin with, no amount of encouragement from others will get you started on your practice.

A healthy mindset is also important. If you are not in a good place mentally or emotionally, it will be more difficult to begin a writing practice. When you are in a good place, the stories seem to flow more naturally and organically. You won’t have to ask, “What do I write about?”

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to explore some of these concepts in greater detail. If you have any questions about how to start a writing practice, feel free to post a comment below.

Want to Improve Your Own Writing? Read Poorly Written Books

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In his book On Writing, (which I highly recommend), author Stephen King suggests that if you want to be a better writer, all you have to do is read. Read a lot. And read a variety of stories.

Of course, that might mean exposing yourself to less than stellar writing. But that’s okay.  Even the less-than-stellar samples can show writers a thing or two about crafting stories – the right way.

Perhaps I should begin by defining what I mean by ‘bad writing.’ It isn’t just about a lack of proper grammar and punctuation, although that’s part of it. It has more to do with the development of the story. Think stilted dialogue, implausible plot lines and poorly drawn characters. It isn’t the writing that’s poorly done as much as the storytelling.

As British author Toby Litt writes in The Guardian, bad writing is boring writing. Bad writing are stories you can’t wait to finish because they are dreadfully boring, or one that you don’t finish at all. On the other hand, a well-crafted, well-written book is one that keeps your attention all the way through. It makes you want to turn the page, and the next page and the next page, and so on.

In my opinion, a good book may not be the highest quality writing. It may not even be a best-seller. But what it does well is keep the reader involved in the story and with the characters, especially the protagonist. If you have a hard time putting a book down, it means the author has successfully designed the story to satisfy your interest. You want to read more to find out what’s going to happen next.

After you’ve read enough stories of different genres, your brain begins to notice differences in the way authors develop their plots and characters, or the way dialogue and narration are presented. When you’ve read enough books, you recognize contrived plot lines and inconsistent behavior from characters. You can decide, as the reader, what is believable and what isn’t. By reading bad writing, you are, hopefully, aware enough of your own skill not to commit the same mistakes.

I recently finished reading a romance novel by an author whose work I had read before and enjoyed. I looked forward to a light, easy read. It was anything but. The plot was not believable, the female protagonist behaved in ways that was not consistent with her character, and the overall experience of reading the book was unpleasant. I felt disappointed and cheated.

You don’t want to do that to your readers.

I doubt I will read anything else by this particular author ever again, although I will pick up another romance novel. They can be fun reads on their own — when they’re written well.

Lesson learned from that reading experience: Make sure the plot is plausible and believable and your protagonist behaves in ways that are true to their personality.

Bad writing can appear in any genre, and sometimes in best-sellers. If in doubt about what ‘bad writing’ is, check out Goodreads’ list of ‘poorly written’ books. Among the Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight collections is The Da Vinci Code. I once tried to read it many years ago and couldn’t get through it. The language was overly descriptive and heavy, moving the narrative along at a snail’s pace. I kept wanting the author to pick up the pace. Naturally, I never made it to the end.

Lesson from that reading experience: Don’t get so bogged down in details that the story slows to a crawl. Keep moving the story along and you will maintain your readers’ interest. Keep that in mind when you do your own writing.

On the upside, reading bad writing can put your own writing into perspective. You can say to yourself, “Hey, I can write better than this. If this trash is being published, maybe there’s hope for me yet in this business.”

The more you read, the more you can learn from the mistakes other writers have made. So even if you have to trudge through a few bad apples along the way, you can still gain from the experience and improve your writing at the same time.

Related Reading about ‘Bad Writing’:
https://bookriot.com/2013/06/27/the-case-for-reading-bad-books/

https://joshcraigwrites.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/about-reading-poorly-written-books/

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

Stephen King does it. So does Kristen Hannah. So do Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris and Andre Dubus III.

They are all writers who write their first drafts in longhand with pen and paper.

Whether you are writing a novel, short story, essay or even a business writing project, like a report or white paper, it may seem counterintuitive to write the first draft longhand rather than use a computer. Writing longhand is too time consuming, you might say. Who has the patience for that?

Lots of writers have weighed in on this topic. You can find links to some of their opinions at the bottom of this post.

Funny thing is, writers who previously wrote their stories on their laptop and experimented with writing longhand say they are sold. There is something about that physical process that helped them be more productive and access their imagination more readily. Some writers claim that there’s a stronger hand-to-heart connection that helps them access deeply held emotions which comes across in their writing.

The process of writing longhand can be liberating. By writing my stories longhand, I’m able to focus on the story development process. Writing longhand seems to open up a pathway to the brain where the core of creativity lies. Amazing things have happened as I write. Characters began showing up that hadn’t been part of the story before, and scenes went off into different unanticipated directions. That’s the fun part of writing.

Writing longhand provides physical proof of your progress. Every notebook or legal pad you write on shows the results of your daily efforts. Seeing your work in black and white can make you feel good about your progress and you’ll want to keep writing. It’s a great motivator to your writing practice. If consistency (or lack thereof) has been a problem for you, try writing longhand and see how it affects your writing practice.

When choosing between the mighty pen and laptop, also think about your typing skills. How fast do you type? If you aren’t fast or accurate, writing longhand might also be a better option for you. Writing might seem slower than typing, but ideas may begin to flow at a rate you can keep up with.

When I first tried writing stories on the computer, I didn’t get very far. I was too busy editing as I was writing. Or I would go back to correct misspelled words. The process you think would be faster and easier was actually slower because I was trying to do both writing and editing at the same time, which means I was using both sides of the brain.

Multi-tasking might be fine, but not when your brain is engaged. Now I use a pen and notebook for writing while I reserve the laptop for typing my stories from the page and editing them. Yes, that might seem like an extra step. But maybe it isn’t. I am editing as I’m transferring my words during that process so it now becomes my second draft. I feel I have gotten more done because I am focused on one activity at a time and I’m not overloading my brain.

Another problem with doing your writing on the computer is the temptation to check details via the Internet, which is obviously more accessible. If you stop writing to check a piece of information, chances are you won’t get back to your writing for another three hours because you got lost in the World Wide Web. You won’t have that temptation if you write longhand.

Here are a few other ways writing longhand can improve your writing:

* Writing longhand may help undo writer’s block. The next time you feel blocked, try writing longhand. Experts say the process of writing has a cognitive benefit. It is directly connected to the part of the brain that governs creativity. By writing longhand, you are actually getting in touch with your creativity.

* It forces you to focus on one activity at a time – writing — which is actually more productive than trying to write and edit at the same time, which uses both sides of the brain. That kind of multi-tasking might actually be counterproductive.

* Brain dumping is easier when writing longhand. Let’s face it. The first draft is always a mess. So what if you write it by hand? You give yourself permission to write crappy copy from the start. With a pen it’s easier to cross out, add, write in the margins, or make notes about what to look up later. Yes, it will look messy, but that’s your brain at work.

* Pen and paper are more portable and lightweight. These writing tools travel easily anywhere you go, whether it’s your front porch, your bedroom, the local coffee shop or the library. You don’t have to worry about missing cords or recharging batteries. It’s just your pen, paper and your ideas. That’s what I call traveling light.

* Pen and paper isn’t hard on your eyesight the way a computer screen is. Sitting in front of computer screen for hours each day is hard on your eyesight. Is it a wonder so many of us wear eyeglasses? And the rays from the screen can affect our ability to sleep at night. Paper and pen don’t have the same impact.

Before you dismiss the idea of writing your stories longhand, give it a try. See how it affects your writing.  Are you more productive? Are you more focused on your story and less distracted by the Internet of things? The computer has its place in the writing process. But when it comes to launching your first draft, pen and paper may be the best way to get you to “The End.”