Convicts in my Front Yard

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There were orange suited convicts in my yard this morning… They are minimal security prisoners on work release to help with the storm debris clean up piled shoulder-high along the streets of my neighborhood. My husband’s gone. I am curious. There are a few city workers using the machinery out there, too. I must admit, for some reason, it was a bit thrilling. I mean, I know no murderers were released to do the work. Still…

Now comes the awkward part.

For about a half an hour after they had moved down the street, one of the vans with blue-suited prison guard drivers, sat in our driveway. We have no sidewalks, nor curbs and gutters. There’s just grass to the edge of our narrow little street. I was trapped. It wasn’t like I needed to go anyplace, either, but I had this irresistible urge to run.

About the van in our drive. The last I’d seen anyone around it, he was an orange-suited guy, taking an awfully long time to get something from the back. (Okay. We all know by this that I would never make a very good witness, but there’s nothing wrong with my imagination.) So I started thinking… why? Why was that van there when the convicts had moved down the road and no longer in sight?

The fantasy writer in me played with magic, and the fact that our baby red-tailed hawk never moved from its dead branch for the entire time the trucks and shovels and asphalt scraping and raking and beeps went on. What, exactly, did that hawk chick have to do with the person in the unmoving van? Or orange?

The SF writer in me wondered about abduction of the driver-guard… Boring!

The thriller writer in me knew someone in orange had slipped away from the crew, and was climbing through my opened three-season room windows. Didn’t you hear the small sound coming from that part of the house?

The romance writer in me thought of an unwed mother going into labor because of all the activity out front, but who was unable to get out of the driveway because it was blocked, so HE comes to the rescue… okay… I’m not romance writer.

The crime-writer part, figured the guard was dead in the back of the van. His jacket and trousers missing… along with one of the inmates. Oooo.

The picture book writer in me was thinking about community helpers, like nice police people and smiling city workers who help keep our streets clean.

As I was typing these scenarios, a blue-suited guard walked up to driver’s side of the van, got in, and pulled away after the rest of the activity. The reasoning side of me figured he’d parked there because it was out-of-the-way, plus our driveway faces the corner, and so had a good vantage point for prisoners working either street.

I have no trouble coming up with ideas for stories. And I honestly like writing for hours at a time. And when a day or – shiver – two go past when I do not write, I go into withdrawal and become grouchity and not very nice to live with.

So here is my writing challenge to you today: find one situation and come up with several alternative solutions to it, then run with the best idea. This can be a scene from your story, or it can be just a fun exercise to get your creative juices flowing, like looking outside your window to find your yard crawling with orange-suited convicts.

More Tornado Stuff

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We’re still without internet — 11 days and counting. This is killing me. It’s difficult not to be able to communicate in my normal, daily way, using my normal, daily workspace. Right now, I’m using my husband’s work computer while he is off on a staff retreat. Which reminds me, thanks to the many people who have offered their homes for my internet communication addiction.

Before I speak about yesterday’s events, I want to say how furious I feel towards thieves, especially thieves who take advantage of tragedy victims. Strangers are canvasing our storm damaged neighborhoods, asking for down-payments for tree removal ($500 to $2,000), and then never returning. I knew of things happening like this from after Hurricane Katrina. I thought everyone knew that. Maybe not. Maybe it was just because I’d helped out down in Mississippi, and therefore heard lots and lots and lots of stories. But this I know, if any stranger comes to our door asking for a down-payment before work, he’d better have his cell phone ready for a 911 call because I’ll be all over that guy! (Actually, our trees are now off the house, and the rest in process of being removed, so these thieves probably won’t bother knocking on our door. Oooo. But if one does…)

Yesterday (Tuesday), three major things happened.

1) Our official insurance claims agent came out and spent three hours assessing our damaged property.

2) Garbage. I need to back up this story two days, to Monday. I called first the disconnected number in the phone book, let City Hall’s number ring 15 times, then called the number to ask for a dumpster, figuring they could direct my call. I was dead-set on speaking to someone about our missed garbage collection. I learned for the first time in living here seven years, that this job is outsourced, out-of-town. I was put on hold  for 45 minutes (not letting that wiggling fish at the end of the line get away this time), waiting, waiting, waiting, with no speaker phone. Four days previous, half of our street was collected. I can only assume tree removal and construction trucks blocked their way on our regular garbage collection morning. But with homes in our neighborhood having cleaned out our refrigerators, and after four days in 90 degree heat (visualize waves of stink rising from each driveway end), and animals starting to dig into the bags, not only did the 8′ piles of tree debris on our lawns block our view of the pavement, but  the garbage piles made it tricky to pull out. 45 minutes later, and then grilled for details, like my waste management number (didn’t even know we had one) and exactly how many bags did I have out there, I was told they would pick it up the next day. They did. My neighbors call me “The Garbage Police.”  I call me desperate.

3) At noon, with the temperature hovering at 90 degrees, one of the many still-leaning trees around here took out a transformer box, leaving hundreds of homes and businesses in my area without power. The lights flickered on and off about eight times before they went off entirely.

It got me thinking about different people (and therefore character) reactions. (This IS supposed to be a writing blog, after all.) My sister would have said, “Let’s get out the flashlights.” My father would have said, “What the &%#@!” and then gone to check our fuze box. My mother would have sighed, then looked disgusted. Another may have stared at the light, blinked, and then waited for his spouse to tell him what to do. Others may have said, “Oh, well,” or “Here we go again.” (This is a great writing exercise, by the way: take any situation, and then have each of your characters respond/react to it in their own way.) My reaction to the this incident? I know it was still daylight. I knew we had gallons of tap water for flushing, and bottled water for drinking. We’d just gone through six days without power, and knew all the what-to-dos. But, actually, that was the point. We’d JUST gone through six days without power, and only had it on for three days. While the light in our hallway flickered, I went from ut-oh mode to hope each time it flashed back on. But then, when it went off for good, I tried not to burst into tears in front of our insurance claims agent, continuing business as usual. It was only off for four and a half hours, but somehow, I was still rattled — cool, calm, collected me, rattled at a daylight loss of electricity.

Well… I may not be doing the novel revision work I’d planned on doing this week, or this month, but I sure am gathering writing fodder for future stories. I have 71 journal pages (mostly random thoughts and facts) and counting, and that doesn’t even count my blog words.

I hear rain and wind storms are coming the next couple days. Why do I feel shaky when I think about that?

Write Every Day… or Take a Guilt-Free Sabbatical

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I’ve done it… for the most part… write every day. I don’t always write on my WIP, but I do write every day. Still, somehow this advice always gnawed at me. Perhaps it is my Unorganized-Organized lifestyle. I’m excellent at organization. Seriously. However, my time-attention-span limits my interest. Like cramming the night before for a college exam, I can go full steam to finish a rough draft of a novel, or revise one, or put together a talk, or send postal letters to people.  But always, I have several (writing) projects going on at various stages of completion (with some “completed” until editor or agent tells me otherwise).

So, because of various reasons, I recently found myself on a writing sabbatical. I didn’t even keep up with my blogs. (Shame on me… or not.)

Two months ago, a critique partner from long ago encouraged me to submit one of my Sitting-Till-I’m-Motivated-To-Again-Send-Out novels. I could see her wisdom of timing, and of her faith in me. I thought about it. But I still didn’t write (nor rewrite, nor revise, nor even pick the novel up for a peek). Then, last Monday another writing friend emailed me about an on-line agent contest that day — to sub the first 250 words of your finished MG or YA novel. I subbed the first page of this written-a-while-ago story. It was only after I pressed the send button that I looked at my novel’s word count — about half what is expected for a YA. Completed novel? YIKES! I figured I’d best break out of my sabbatical.

On Monday, I printed off the novel. I looked over notes from previous critiques. I dug out my research notes. I did some more research on line. I made a list of characters and their connections to each other, along with biographies. (<– Although I do that now with my stories, back then I just did research and wrote the story.)  And while I was doing all this, I realized that not only was the story actually pretty good, but I also got very excited about it. My mind was churning. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.

On Tuesday, I wrote an additional 1,100 words, all of which brought up a very interesting plot twist. (The original story now seemed bland without this addition.)

Today, I wrote another 1,600 words, including some revisions, and it’s not even noon.

I still have some more words to write to bring up that word count, but I’m hoping to have that done by the end of this week.

My writing sabbatical is over. I’m not only interested and excited about my story, I’ve set myself manageable goals to get it done. I don’t know if Monday’s on-line agent contest will produce any interest for a contract, but in a few days this story will be hot.  Was my sabbatical worth it? You bet! I’m tackling this project with an enthusiasm I’ve lacked for a while. Plus, that enthusiasm overflows into other aspects of my life.

My advice: It is okay to take a guilt-free sabbatical. Yes, write every day. Yet, there are times when you need to step back in order to go forward.

Wordsmithing in Verse

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At first I thought this goal of writing a poem a day during National Poetry Month was just another writing challenge. Then, I thought writing them was lofty, poetic, oh so literary. Then, I panicked, because I know I’m no poet and couldn’t tell good from bad. I can’t even rhyme. I craved to give up this challenge after the first few days. After all, I didn’t even have a Poetry Month Partner to encourage me along the rocky way.

I’ve found writing poetry HARD. Writing good poetry takes talent. But if I fail in this challenge, then I fail as a writer. Why? Because if I am unable to pick my words well in short focused pieces, how can I choose my words well in larger works? Word detail is vital. Accent, tone, and each syllable is important. What an awareness! I’m thinking that every novelist needs to engage in poetry writing for a time.

My Tools of the Poetry Trade: Usually I write with keyboard beneath my fingertips. But in this month-long experiment (well, only a week so far), I’m finding myself using pencil and paper more than any other time. I write down snatches of ideas for poems. I use the eraser a lot. Revisions take on an entirely new dimension. I also use a printed Thesaurus. I haven’t done that in decades. Lately, I’ve lazily depended upon computer-generated words. Soon, though, I may come to the thinking that even using a Thesaurus is lazy.

The very interesting thing I’ve concluded now is that I’ve also found that writing poetry is FUN. There are so many venues. I’ve written sentimental pieces, silly ones from a child’s point of view, love songs, nature and gardening prose, couplets, snatches of ideas. The variety of possibilities is nearly endless, and best yet, I am not limited. I am no longer scared to try wordsmithing in verse. I’m thinking next time National Poetry Month rolls around, I may focus more, like write 30 limericks about nature. Surely, just for the sheer weight of my words, there will have to be one or two which is audience readable.

Onward to engage in my poem of the day.

National Poetry Month Challenge

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Today starts National Poetry Month. Therefore, my April Challenge to anyone willing to accept it, is to write one poem a day all month long.

Okay, here’s my problem: I’m a horrid poet, and know it. I can’t even tell the Longfellow joke right. Sure, I own a few books of poetry and even a couple rhyming books, but, yikes! A poem a day! Who is crazy enough to accept such a challenge? Wait, wait! Aren’t couplets considered poetry? Why, yes, Sandy, they are. Even kids could write two sentences which end with a rhyme each day. What about songs? They are merely poems under another jacket cover. Okay, I’ll get my creative juices going, accept my own challenge, and see how disciplined I am to see how many poems I get written this month. Who knows? I may even be inspired to write more than just a couplet a day.

The Farmer’s Almanac let me know that April comes from the Latin word aperio, meaning “to open or bud,” because plants begin to grow this month. Perhaps… just perhaps some poet will begin to bud this month as well. Good luck to all you poet challenge accepters.

(BTW, today also starts National Humor Month, so if you wanted to swing on over to my Humor Blog ( http://sandycarl.blogspot.com ) you will find one antidote or personal story or joke every day during April. Somehow, that seems so much easier to do than a poem a day. Who thought of this, anyway? A poem a day. Yeesh.)

March’s Challege Results

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At the beginning of March, I sent out a personal challenge (and included any others to join me) of writing 20,000 raw words (new words) during the month. How did you all do? Sadly, I didn’t reach my goal. I only made about 1/3 of the way through. If only an editor or agent were on my back pushing me… NO EXCUSES! I didn’t meet my goal. Too bad. Those are 4,000 words I didn’t have before, plus I have a full day ahead of me to write more. (If only the sun would stop shining so I wouldn’t be tempted to go outside and do some yard work.)

Tomorrow’s a new month. I’ll have a new writing challenge to set before you to get those creative juices flowing. For me, it will be a scary challenge. Oh, this challenge is on top of my revision of an entire novel during April. Hello, Spring!

Writer’s Inspiration Boost

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I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking of how to connect two main characters in one of my novels (besides the obvious conflicts). I need (want) them to be interconnected, but I can’t brainstorm how they do. It’s been a struggle on my poor brain. I think about them, wander away, sometimes for a couple months, then come back to think some more. I keep wondering why it’s not working, or if I should just trash one character or perhaps the entire story. (It’s not really writer’s block. Although, I admit, I don’t know what that is besides an excuse.) However, the problem makes me wonder about various ways to boost inspiration and imagination and creativity.

1) Eat well, sleep well, get exercise, see your doctor. Being pain-free, and having blood moving swiftly through your body and into your little grey cells, can only help stimulate writing thoughts and get those creative juices flowing. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I take a LONG walk. This does three things for me: unfreezes my stiffened muscles from sitting hours in one position at my computer; distracts me with neighborhood happenings; and releases some built up story-making-adreneline to free my mind to think more clearly.

2) Get off of drugs which make your brain sluggish. (Talk with your doctor about this one.)

3) Get onto drugs, which make your brain a wilderness to explore. (A Federal Marshall I know who is a mystery writer solves his writer’s block or plot problems by “sitting down with Jack” (a bottle of Jack Daniels) until he comes up with a solution in his plot. Personally, I think this way would turn my mind to mush, so it’s not something I recommend; just something I know works for one crazed writer.)

4) Find writing support. Join a writing organization and participate. You can also find writing support by taking a class or by reading books on craft. Three of my favorite ones include ON WRITING, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, and NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS: UNCOMMON WAYS TO REVISE. In the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of SCBWI bulletin, Kate Dopirak writes about forming her “writing team” in a classroom of middle school kids. A self-published author I know uses his “editors,” who are six beta readers, including librarians and teachers. There are unlimited writing support groups on-line (critique groups, forums, listservs, blogs, etc). It can be done live (critique groups, writing conferences, going to hear visiting authors, local write-ins, etc.). 5) Step back from the story. Maybe start another one. But then come back to your original story, knead out those bumps, and become an award-winning author.

What additional ways do you have to boost your writing?

August Writing Challenge

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Here it is.. With three and a half weeks left in the month, the challenge I charge to you is to write 10,000 RAW (i.e., new) words by September 1. No, I do not mean for you to write out a list of words like erity, makeabee, xabertous, and bbbbletah. I mean, 10,000 raw writing words, put together into a rough draft stage of a new story or part of a story. Simple dimple, right?

Need a starter word? How about starfish? Or xabertous?

Ready? Set? Go!

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part IV — 1 More from Darcy Pattison

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In Darcy Pattison’s “Fiction Notes,” she addressed this very topic this week. There are too many other people to list who have also given suggestions. Gee. Sounds like a book idea! Wait. There are probably lots of books concerning how to write when there are others around.

One of Darcy’s suggestions is to use pen and paper. I do this so much — even journaling daily in marble notebooks — that I think about this suggestion about as much as I think about being a woman, i.e., it just is a part of me. So, thank you, Darcy, for rattling my brain a bit.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina struck, I headed south on a mission trip with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). For the first few days, I helped cut trees and drag branches to the roadside for later pickup and became spotty with gnat and mosquito bites. During our shade-and-drink breaks, I’d whip the small notebook and pen from my back jeans pocket, and write furiously until we started up again. Then, during the leaders meeting, the director of the camp asked if anyone had a writer in their group — to work on the website, write down stories, etc. My fearless leader’s hand shot up, indicating that I was the only one in the group of 90-some volunteers there at that time who was “a writer.” One man from NJ who’d worked with me and the trees that week, confessed he wondered why I hid behind tree trunks scribbling all the time.

The next day, I was left alone in the tent camp, except for my gnat and mosquito friends, staring at the computer. The wall-canvases were pulled to the poles so I could look over my lonely territory. I stared at the screen, tried to organize my notebook thoughts, feeling lonely and deserted and wondering how I could stand the pressure of being the lone writer, and what I would write about first, when who wandered into the shade of my tent, but the big honcho in charge of all PDA camps in the area. Interview time!

I had lots to share with him from my scribbles to bring him up to current speed of the camp, and he gave me lots more to write about, dealing with the camp’s short history.

Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my literary heros) always carried pencil and pad with him and scribbled away notes and snatched bits of conversation. Of course, this was pre-notebook (computer) days. But there are many times when technology is unavailable even today. So… keep those notebooks and journals and a couple of pens (in case one runs out of ink on you) handy.

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part I — The Problem

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I am not your sit-in-a-cafe-and-write type of person. If I do, I start eavesdropping on conversations, or watch kids wrap their parents around their desires, or figure out why this one lady is sitting all alone at a table with a drink and a laptop but not even looking at her screen. However, I know for some writers, the more noise and people, the better for writing. Not me. I crave quiet.

But besides being distracted in public, what about those distractions at home? Take my on-line critique group… One has five children and spent a month visiting relatives on the way to their new home several states away. One practically runs her boys’ Cub Scout Troop, and is active in school events — even all summer long. One owns her own very active (pun?) drama school — need I say more? One has a daughter who just left for boot camp and a son who is an autistic adult. One has four children she homeschools and a whole bunch of farm animals. My husband works out of our house, on the computer, for half of his work time.

When just six of us writers start listing the distractions caused by home and work life, the pile of excuses start adding up. Okay. Let’s just admit it… every writer has excuses. That’s the problem.

Next post: what are some solutions?