Tag Archives: writing groups

The Dog Days Doldrums: Or, Be Good to Yourself Even When You’re Doing Nothing

It’s the dog days. It’s the doldrums. It’s the nothing’s happening time. When I was growing up in sunny SoCal, this was the deep middle of summer, which for us ran from when school was out in early June until school started again after Labor Day. Endless days, warm nights. Lots of time with nothing to do but run the imagination. Read a book. Play solitaire (with cards; didn’t have computers then). Try to stay cool without A/C. A lot of time doing nothing.

I don’t know if any of that has anything to do with why I can’t seem to focus on getting anything done now. I’m eager to write. I have a number of stories I’m trying to push forward, but mostly I just keep pushing things back and forth, side to side. What am I doing? I don’t know.

The other day, while trying rather unsuccessfully to focus on a story, I ended up stumbling on a blog post by my advisor from my MFA days, the author Stephen Schwartz. The post is called “Feeding the Lake,” and it’s full of great advice for writers. But perhaps the one that struck me the most was this:

Realize that you’re writing even when you’re not. It’s called wool gathering. Lying on the couch daydreaming, mulling over a story in the shower, waiting to pick up your kids from school, spacing out in a staff meeting. Give yourself credit for all these.

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What Writers Get from Writing Groups

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the importance of writing groups. You know, how as writers, we need the support of a community of likeminded and similarly inclined insane people (i.e., other writers) to occasionally pull us out of the imaginary worlds spinning around inside our craniums and tell us there is hope and reason to continue. There’s probably some other stuff they do as well.

Then I spotted a recent blog by an Australian writer on the same topic that more or less says much of what I probably would have said. The writer is Kelly Inglis, and the post was titled “Collaboration In The Writing Community.” Here’s the bit I find most pertinent:

Your spouse, sibling, parent or best friend is not likely to give you entirely honest feedback about your beloved manuscript, but a fellow writer and critique partner will. They’ll tell you what works in your story and what doesn’t. They’ll tell you if your dialogue is stilted or if your characters are boring. They can tell you why something doesn’t work, so that you can take their advice and improve your story.

It’s not that your friends and relations aren’t trying to give honest feedback, but rather that they typically don’t have the critical reading skills that as writers we must develop. And it might also be that those well-known to us—best friends, spouses—could be predisposed to like whatever we churn out so that they simply aren’t capable of seeing the flaws.  Continue reading

Mindful Writing, Mindful Life

English: Bread from India

English: Bread from India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I make a sandwich, or toast, and get bread out, I always say the word mindful to myself as I remove the clip or tie from the bread. This is a reminder to myself to remember—be mindful—of where I set down the item so when I’m done with the bread, I’ll have no trouble closing it back up. Over the years, repeating mindful to myself has become habitual, and I never lose a bread tie.

The same principle can apply to all sorts of things, such as keys, a file on your computer, where you parked your car. Remember to remember where you put things, and you won’t forget where they are. Yeah, it’s sort of obvious, but if we did it all the time, we wouldn’t lose things. And we do lose things.

Fact is, most of the time we are not mindful. We are sloppy, or lazy, or too busy to worry about the details, our minds on too many things at once. Our minds are full, and so we aren’t mindful. (Now, doesn’t it seem mindful is a strange word to mean being aware? I guess it’s supposed to mean your mind is full of awareness. Or some such.)

When it comes to writing, I believe in the same principle of mindfulness, although I confess it’s not at all as straightforward to make it habitual. We should be careful to put every word in the correct place, every detail in the correct scene, every character in the correct story. And so forth. But you can’t always tell what’s correct as you’re writing.

Fortunately, writing, unlike life, gives you the chance for revision. You can practice mindful writing up to a point, but ruthless editing is likely to be even more helpful in this regard. In my case, I benefit greatly from having outstanding readers in my writing group who can point out all the wasted words I spew—criticism that makes sense as soon as I hear it even when I’m blind to it on my own. (Although I’m learning and becoming more and more mindful while I’m writing.)

So that’s my story of mindfulness. Be mindful in writing and in life. Now perhaps I’ll go make a sandwich.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

The October Challenge

Most people have heard of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where aspiring writers all over commit to writing a complete novel during the month of November. The program has many good points and many supporters, of course. Basically, it gets participants out of the planning stages, gets them off their duff, and gets something done.

Success in the challenge is generally considered to be completing 50,000 words. Now, I’m not sure I’ve read many novels as short as that, but then I tend to pick up epics. Additionally, with the emphasis all on word count, it’s too easy to ignore quality. The idea is that you’ll be able to revise after you complete the draft, but if the draft is too bad, you’ll end up starting over anyway. And yes, there’s a little of an elitist in me that says quality matter and just because you can commit 50k words to the page doesn’t make you a novelist.

Clearly my views on NaNoWriMo are mixed at best. The writing group I work with has taken the idea behind NaNoWriMo, however, and applied it to writing short stories. So, during this month of October, we’ve each set ourselves a goal for a number of new short stories we’re going to attempt to complete. We’ve taken the word count out of the equation, yet still set a fairly difficult task—especially when you consider that each of us also has other projects to work on simultaneously, not to mention work, family, and all those other niggling elements of life that get in the way of writing.

My personal goal for October’s Writing Blitz is to complete four new short stories. Since I’m a pathetically slow writer, I consider this a pretty lofty goal. As part of the challenge, I’ve also d the group, and myself, to pick up our blogging output, so I’ll also try to get two blogs posted a week. And we’ll see how all that goes.

So far, I’d have to say I’m off to a slow start, considering I haven’t written anything in the way of a story, although I’ve done some research and prep for writing. (We started our October challenge yesterday, before the first of the month, so we could begin on Monday, which seemed to work well for everyone—it’s like officially cheating!) Obviously, I’ve got some work to do.

But anyway, here’s blog number one. I’ll try to remember to include some updates on how things are going throughout the month.

Related: May is Short Story Month, but October is Short Story Writing Month

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together

For many years, I had a story idea sparked by the Falling Rock warning signs you see placed along mountainous roads. Actually, it was an idea without a story, which is at least one of the reasons I didn’t write it for a long time. It required a few additional elements before the story evolved: reading a novel by Robert McCammon, a specific discussion with my writing group, and discovering a new band with a new flavor of music.

Head East road sign album cover

Album cover for Head East’s self-titled 1978 album

The basic idea went something like this: What if a rock band chose the name Falling Rock, and then their fans started stealing all those warning signs from the roadways of America? A what if can be an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t inherently lead to the elements necessary for story: characters, conflict, and so forth. As a side note, the idea owes something to the classic rock band Head East, whose self-titled album from 1978 had an album cover made to look like a road sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions and the band’s name spray painted over them; although you might not recognize the band name, you almost certainly know their most famous song, “Never Been Any Reason (Save My Life).”

I started thinking more seriously about how to write my story after reading Robert McCammon’s novel The Five, which came out about two years ago. First of all, McCammon has long been one of my favorite authors; I recommend his books unreservedly. (What, you haven’t read Boy’s Life? Then how did you think you knew what a story was or what it takes to be a writer?)

Robert McCammon, The Five

Cover of Robert McCammon’s novel The Five

In The Five, a small touring band embarks on what might be their last tour together before familial and other obligations pull them in other directions. They’ve each got ulterior motives that prompt them on the journey, and of course they encounter tragedy, heartbreak, and terror. Along the way, something really magical and creative happens. I loved this book—beautifully written and engaging throughout.

What The Five gave me in inspiration for my Falling Rock story was a glimpse into what the life of a small touring band might be like: that constant struggle to do the thing you love—play music—but also needing to make it pay. The novel also helped begin to answer the what if I’d started with. The band in the novel gains notoriety through tragedy such that suddenly they’re a hot ticket. What if, I thought, my band becomes popular because of stolen road signs?

That’s still a situation, an idea, not a story. At that point, I brought up the idea with my writing group. I don’t normally talk about my ideas or what I’m working on before I write them, but in this case I didn’t have a story, and I guess I was afraid I would lose the impetus to write it if a story didn’t come about soon. So, I laid out the idea.

The lesson here is really how important it is to have a suitable group of writing companions that you can work with and share ideas and stories, give and receive criticism and encouragement, whether online or in person. After I described what I was thinking about, my group members saw the potential and immediately started asking the right questions—or more importantly, getting me to ask them.

The biggest question was: Whose story is this? It might seem silly that I hadn’t figured that out—and naturally that was a big stopping point in being able to write it. I’d had a vague sense that it was a story about the band itself (although I hadn’t figured out who the band was). But my writing group got me thinking about other possibilities. Was this a fan’s story? Was it a story about someone stealing the signs? Or someone trying to stop the sign stealing?

By the end of that short conversation, I had plenty of ideas that could develop into a true story, characters to build story around. Because each of the possibilities seemed to have life in it, I began thinking of a fragmented, multicharacter story to use all the ideas. As my former MFA workshop mates could attests, I’ve always had trouble telling just one story at a time.

For a variety of reasons (you know them—work, life, procrastination), it was still a couple of months before I started writing anything. Once I did start writing, I needed a name for my rock band. Initially, I thought the band would be called Falling Rock, but I decided instead that should be the name of their latest CD, which would be designed to look like the road sign. Because the band would be at the center of the story, the reason all the other characters and their stories were swirling around, I wanted a band name that somehow represented that movement, that journey. Unfortunately, Journey was already taken.

My first thought was Voyager, as I knew of no band with that name. I checked online through Spotify, however, and found such an artist. In fact, what I found was a recently released CD titled The Meaning of I with a very striking cover:

Voyager, Meaning of I CD

Cover artwork for Voyager’s The Meaning of I

When I see artwork such as this on an album or CD, I have a good feeling that the music might be something I’d be interested in. I’ve always believed in the old adage, Always judge a book by its cover. But only as it applies to books, or in this case CDs or albums. I’ve been hooked on progressive rock since I first discovered Pink Floyd back in high school, and I’m always on the lookout for new artists to add to my collection. These are the sort of artists that typically makes an artistic statement with their album/CD artwork to complement their music.

Voyager, from Australia, was described as progressive metal, so I figured I’d give them a listen. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Intelligent lyrics combined with a nice vocal style—and a hell of a lot of drums and guitars. Pretty soon, I was listening extensively to all the available Voyager music (they’ve only released four CDs to date, although according to their Facebook fan page they’re working on number five now).

Voyager became a spiritual model for my fictional band, and their music was frequently my inspiration while writing. It’s a rock and roll story, so I wanted to stay in a rock and roll state of mind. And by the way, my band ended up with the name Go Forth Traveller, in case you were wondering.

That’s pretty much it. All the pieces were in place, and I was able to complete this story, “Falling Rock.” Of course, from the beginning I envisioned it as a short story, and that’s what I tried to write. The final result, with four intertwined storylines, came in at about 15,000 words, which is novella range by many definitions, or at any rate a very long short story. And it’s currently out in the world looking for a publication home.

You just never know how a story is going to come together. Sometimes an idea sticks around for ages before it connects with some other piece or pieces and a story develops. Other times, the story forms almost instantaneously. And then there are the stories you think will work that lose momentum altogether and die. It’s all part of the writing life, I suppose. And the writing life is all about searching for the meaning of I.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins