Tag Archives: writing life

Writing With Soap, Tea, and Sequins

I have a bar of soap on my desk. It’s not for washing my hands. It’s not there by mistake. I bought it a couple of years ago at a quirky little handmade soap shop with a half-dozen other bars, intending to give them out as little gifts whenever a little-gift occasion came up. I did give the rest of them away, but not this one. I loved the scent, fresh and clean, but also like the ocean and crushed mint. And then I realized that the quirky soap shop owners had decided to call this particular scent ‘hangover,’ and I’d just never found anyone I felt good about giving it to. So I kept it, and it gravitated to my desk because its scent made me happy. Soon it didn’t just make me happy, it helped me kickstart my brain. Whenever I’m pondering a scene, I just reach over, grab the soap bar and inhale its ocean-mint scent, and changing one sensory input gives my brain a little jolt and helps me approach my writing with a fresh perspective.

I also have a blackberry sage tea canister that serves a similar purpose. The scent of the tea—leafy, fruity and bitter—lingers in the tin long after I’ve steeped the last bag, and its aroma has the ability to shift my mental focus and give me the nudge I need to think about my writing in a different way.

I like to keep something tactile nearby to work with my fingers while I think. It used to be one of those desk magnet things—until my children carried the little pieces away. Now it’s a slap bracelet with reversible sequins which one of those same children abandoned on my desk. Sequins aren’t really my style aesthetically; I’m more of a natural fibers kind of girl, but if I see reversible sequins, I must touch them, run my hands up and then down. Every. Single. Time. Addiction, y’all. But also a physical prompt to shift my perspective and renew my mind.

There are plenty of ways to shake up your environment in order to shake up your mind and your story. You just have to find the one that works for you. Change the lighting in you room. If you usually stick with a bright overhead light, try softer lamplight or natural light. Open a window. Light a candle. The oppressive heat of summer here has just been replaced by the invigorating chill of fall mornings, so I’ve moved my writing outside today. All the birdsong and fresh air has kept me going for a solid hour already. 

What props or techniques do you use to renew your mind while you write? 

Write by Midnight 9-30-20

We have long been proponents of setting positive incentives for reaching your writing goals. Finish revising that scene? Reward yourself with a piece of chocolate. Write for an hour? Treat yourself to a night out with your significant other or a friend. But sometimes negative incentives are just as motivating. To continue making progress on your writing project, consider finding ways to help you meet your deadlines and goals by promising to do something you don’t like if you miss the mark. Didn’t write 1,000 words today like you planned to? Succumb for a week to the one household chore no one wants to claim. Fail to write a new scene today? Ban yourself from something you love doing for the next day. Hopefully, when you check in with us at the end of October, you won’t have to admit how low you had to stoop to meet your goals for the month.

Treasures abound in research rabbit holes

Laura Ayo

Amid the extreme tides of the Bay of Fundy is a tiny island known as Isle Haute. I learned about its existence while doing research this summer for my current work-in-progress, a middle grade historical fiction novel set in 18th century Nova Scotia – then known as Acadie. I turned to the Internet to learn more about the rise and fall of the world-famous Fundy tides since they would have been a significant part of everyday life for my characters. And before I knew it, I had not only learned about the 50-foot tidal exchange and watched way-cool videos of people walking on the ocean floor during low tide, but I had stumbled upon Isle Haute.

What caught my eye about the island – notable for its 320-foot-cliffed sides – was that it appeared to float above the water, especially on misty mornings, thanks to those dramatically fluctuating tides. I should have shut down my Wi-fi right then and there and gone back to writing. But a floating island? I had to read more.

So, over the better part of the rest of my day, I read more about Isle Haute and how it not only appears to float, but has been known to disappear and reappear in a new location within the bay, or so people claim. Local legend says pirate Ned Low buried stolen treasure there in 1722 and then beheaded a member of his crew so its ghost could safeguard it until Low returned to collect the loot. But Low was captured and hanged, never to return to reclaim the treasure, and the flaming headless ghost emerges every seven years, prompting the island to change its location.

Buried treasure, of course, means there have been attempts to unearth Low’s rumored stash. And in reading about those efforts, I came across one nugget of information that actually related back to my WIP. My story is about a brother and sister who are separated from one another in 1755 when the British deported thousands of Acadians from their homeland. Thanks to my tangential research into Isle Haute, I learned there are some who believe the Acadians hid their valuables on the island during the expulsion to keep them from falling into British hands. It was also suggested that some Acadians hid out on the island to avoid the deportation.

Was there a way for me to work all of these fun tidbits of information into my story? It seemed like a stretch, so I set aside the “research” and lamented the fact that I had just spent an entire day working on my manuscript with nothing tangible to show for it.

Fast forward to last week. I tuned in to this year’s virtual YA-hoo! Fest’s historical fiction genre talk hosted by authors Vicky Alvear Shecter, Kathleen Burkinshaw, J. Kasper Kramer and Amy Trueblood. These well-spoken and engaging panelists shared their thoughts about falling down the research rabbit hole. Their agreement that it’s not only an inevitable part of the process for historical fiction writers, but that it shouldn’t be a shameful thing – or regarded as a waste of time – was exactly what I needed to hear as I’m starting to revise my story. I’ve been neck-deep in a lot of rabbit holes while researching this novel.

Shecter embraces the process, saying it’s where she discovers interesting gems to use in her stories. She advised editing the finds, however, by incorporating only the ones that are relevant to your character’s specific journey.

While elaborating on that same idea, Kramer said the rabbit hole is worth exploring, especially when it leads to an emotional, pivotal moment for your character.

Burkinshaw even followed up the discussion with words of encouragement on Twitter: “Keep going and don’t be afraid of the research rabbit hole.”

I digested their comments over the past few days and had them in mind as I worked on my story this weekend. As much as I think a middle grade audience would love to read about flaming headless ghosts, my story isn’t about hunting for pirate treasure. And, if I’m being true to history, my tween protagonists would never have paddled a canoe across the Bay of Fundy by themselves to hide their family treasures. I did, however, find a feasible way to work in a small bit of what I discovered in the rabbit hole, and I’m energized to flesh out the scene to add it.

When I’m finished writing it, I’ll move on to the next item on my “To Research” list. Surely, it won’t take long to find out what kinds of crops the Acadians were harvesting right before the deportation. Let me just check the Internet real quick….

Write by Midnight Pep Talk 6-29-20

Over the past month, we’ve asked you to identify books that were either written in the same genre as your story, targeted the same audience as your work-in-progress, or featured characters facing similar conflicts to those in your story. Turning to these mentor texts when you find yourself struggling to write every day can help you stay motivated, as well as improve your writing skills. Each of us have used mentor texts in various ways. Here, we share how we have found or turned to them to inspire and inform our writing.

Laura Ayo

Laura: I believe writers have the opportunity to learn something from every book they read on their journeys to becoming better writers. Sometimes the books are vital lessons in what not to do. But, for the most part, the stories I read help me to improve my craft in subtle, though sometimes profound, ways. I’m in the early stages of revising my work-in-progress, a middle grade historical fiction novel set in the mid-18th century. The story is told from the points of view of a brother and sister who are separated from their parents and each other during their people’s forced removal from their homeland. Here is a sampling of some of the mentor texts I’m using to make my story the best that it can be.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – how to consistently allow readers to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist

Refugee by Alan Gratz and A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park – how to write about characters who are displaced from their homes/life as they knew it

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram – how to write about a character’s first experiences with a new/unfamiliar culture/customs and language

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson – how to write about an epidemic in an 18th century setting (although mine is set a few decades earlier)

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas – how to write about the ways culture and community leave their mark on characters

Salt to the Sea and The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys – how to write multiple points of view about the same (and little known and/or forgotten) event in history and how to weave period details into a story without info-dumping

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt – how to write about a character hesitant to accept kindness and love from strangers

As you can see, not all of my mentor texts are historical fiction. They’re not all middle grade novels. While I’ve found something valuable in each of them to inform my own writing, they’re all brilliant and thoughtful in many respects, and may influence your stories in completely different ways. So read widely. You can always learn from others.

Megan Norris Jones

Megan: I had heard authors recommend finding mentor texts in the past, but I hadn’t really understood how to use them effectively. I thought I needed to find books that shared the same theme or subject as my work in progress, like comp titles. Now I realize that the best mentor texts are ones that excel in areas that I am working to develop. As a result, the texts I study will change over time as I focus on different aspects of writing craft. Right now I’m focusing on books that help me understand how to tell a compelling story, one that readers feel in their hearts, not just follow in their heads. My current mentor texts include Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah, and The Missing of Clairdelune by Christelle Dabos.

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

Naomi: Years ago, I read a Random House interview with Zadie Smith in which, at that point in her career, she’d never attended a writing class and found that “[t]he best, the only real training you can get is from reading other people’s books.”  Very sage advice. (Though having been a professor of creative writing at NYU since 2010, I wonder if Smith is eating her words, or still advising her students accordingly). For me basically all of Smith’s books are mentor texts for story structure, character and well, just how she forms words into sentences.  For my current WIP, however, my mentor list includes Barkskins by Annie Proulx (setting as character), We Are Okay by Nina Lacour (difficult family relationships, among many other things), Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (story structure, theories of reincarnation and concepts of duel realities) and The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold (story structure and the blurred lines of consciousness).  While I know mentor texts are defined as books, my list extends to art and T.V. as well. Studying the surreal worlds created in Frida Kahlo’s paintings or in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Joshua Brand and John Falsey’s Northern Exposure have been as much help to me as Proulx’s Barkskins or the others on my list.

Stacey Kite

Stacey: I break mentor texts into two categories: those with brilliant prose, regardless of genre, subject matter or target audience, and those that have similarities to the book I’m working on.

The first group consists of novels by writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, M. R. Carey and Terry Pratchett. Though they have very different styles, there are so many things I learn by re-reading their works that it’s hard to know where to start. For rapier satire, there’s no book that matches Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a masterclass in the art of showing incremental character change. Bujold novels are the ones I turn to when I find myself struggling with dialog, among other things. She writes it brilliantly with the most minimalistic use of tags. There’s a hilarious dinner scene in A Civil Campaign that lasts for 23 pages, includes 20 speaking characters and yet, averages less than one dialog tag per page. And the reader always knows which character is speaking. It’s amazing.

Then there’s the second category of mentor texts: those that share target audience and themes with mine. Since my story is told from animal POVs, those have been more difficult to hunt down. There are older, classic books, of course—Call of the Wild by Jack London, Watership Down by Richard Adams and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, but finding contemporary, middle grade novels with animal POV’s was challenging. When my Amazon searches came out a bust, I turned to a writing friend of mine who is a middle school teacher, and she periodically asks her school’s librarian for recommendations and sends them on to me. That’s how I found Pax, by Sara Pennypacker. A wonderful MG novel with a fox for a protagonist.

Which leads me to my simple tip for finding mentor texts—ask people—especially librarians. Librarians rule!

We would love to here from you about what you look for in a mentor text and which have helped you the most.

Writing Into the Unknown

Megan Norris Jones

Some people have compared our nation’s experience with the pandemic to the grieving process. Denial (that’s just in China!), bargaining (let’s stay home for a couple of weeks, and then this will all be better), anger (you can’t make me wear a mask!), depression (I’m going to get it no matter what I do), and acceptance. I’m not sure what acceptance looks like because I don’t think we’ve gotten there. 

From a creativity perspective, these months of upheaval and uncertainty have definitely affected my writing life, bringing it almost to a standstill. For a while, everything else was blocked out by the enormity of the pandemic. Events popped up on my calendar, and I just deleted them. Nothing was going to happen. All I did was devour news about the coronavirus. Even areas of my life previously devoted to writing shifted to focus on the disease. Half our weekly WriteOwls phone call was consumed by discussion of the pandemic. I quit reading fiction. I quit watching television and movies. I stopped midway through an audiobook. I sat down to write in fits and starts, but I didn’t produce much. I developed a hyperawareness of the fragility not just of my physical life but also of the activities and relationships that once filled my life.

Sure, some of my writing problems were scheduling issues, since the time I had blocked out for writing didn’t exist any more, and instead I was suddenly shifting to homeschool mode. But I can always stay up later or get up earlier to make time to write. I just wasn’t in a headspace for creating stories in the face of so many unknowns. Even when I was at the bargaining stage of hoping for a return to normal before the school year was out, I knew deep down that this experience was reshaping our culture in profound ways that I couldn’t yet identify. And if the whole world changed, then would the stories I’ve written and am writing even make sense in that new world? Continue reading