Writing Practice & Writing Prompts

Anyone who loves creative writing and wants to write well can tell you that it’s hard work.  I can sweat, open a vein, and/or pound my head against the monitor with the best of them.  But like anything worth doing, the more you practice writing, the easier it gets.

In one of the great writing books, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks a lot about daily writing practice. Pick a word or phrase and just write what comes to mind. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dialogue, scenes, or poetry. You can write from your own memory, from a weird dream, or your neighbor’s soap-opera life.  Just not my life – that’s my own story fodder!

I know, I know.  Daily writing practice sounds tedious.  But it’s actually the chance to write just for the joy of writing.  You get to play with words – how they sound, how they go together – without the pressure of writing for publication.  Make up your own words.  Change a nice word to a naughty one and see where your writing takes you.  Get fanciful, without worrying about a scene being to sappy to fit into a story.  Let out your inner horror writer.

Note:  while your practice writing isn’t for publication, the long-term effect will be to increase your skills and therefore your chances of getting published.  Consider yourself warned!

Do you start a story or scene with words tumbling in your head?  Does the scene play in your mind visually, like a movie?  Is translating it into words on paper as gut-wrenching for you as it is for me?  Hmmm . . . on second thought, don’t answer that.

Anyway, the effect of each practice writing exercise is that I  you get better at saying what you want to say, better at recording the thoughts or movies in your head. That doesn’t mean your future writing won’t need editing, just that the act of getting the first draft down will become easier. And the more you write, the more your own style of writing begins to come through.

Writing practice doesn’t need to be long. Ten to fifteen minutes on an exercise can be plenty, or you can stretch it out longer if you’re on a roll. But do it every day, and set a timer – you want to stop while it’s still fresh and fun, or you’ll get intimidated and won’t come back for a second time.

Now, you know I like to give writing prompts. But before I get to the list, here’s how the word Thunderstorm might trigger your writing:

  • What does a thunderstorm mean to you? Excitement, while you’re safe inside? Clammy fear? Worry about a tornado? Massive flooding?
  • Write the inner thoughts of a person watching a thunderstorm.
  • Write a scene between two people fighting, with the storm interrupting or accenting their fight.
  • Make a list of vivid, concrete words about thunderstorms and people/objects affected by them.
  • Write a childhood memory of being caught in a thunderstorm.

Now use similar ideas for the following words and phrases.  Get your pen and paper, find a comfy chair, set a timer, and . . . GO!

  • Lavender (mentioned in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones)
  • Mud
  • Glitter
  • Grapefruit
  • Hopscotch
  • Jealousy
  • Doorways
  • Tears
  • Mistletoe
  • Sand and Surf
  • Planting a vegetable garden
  • Sharpening pencils
  • Shopping with your sister
  • Losing weight
  • “He who laughs last . . .”
  • Favorite uncle
  • Moonlight walks

Anything and everything is fair game for practice writing.  Create your own list of prompts:

  • Type a double- or triple-spaced list of your own, cut it up, and draw one out of a jar each day.
  • Read Let Characters Reveal Themselves to see how a fiction workshop did practice writing with dialogue only.
  • Find other writing prompts here (check the category cloud in the right sidebar) or on the internet, but feel free to take only the main concept if you don’t like the complete assignment.

After you’ve done a practice-writing session or two, pop back here and let us know how it was!


I’m B-a-a-ck! (And Setting Writing Goals)

OK, writer friends, first I need to apologize.  Between the holidays, keeping my personal blog going, and taking some long trips to Oregon, not to mention my brain getting sucked away for alien study (hmm, study by aliens or study because I am one?), I haven’t posted here since before Christmas.  But thanks to a little thing called ROW80, I’m back.

What the heck is ROW80? you ask.  Begun by the awesome writer Kait Nolan (check out her book Red), it’s “the writing challenge that knows you have a life.”  ROW80 stands for Round of Words in 80 Days.  You get to set writing goals, blogging goals, and whatever other goals you like (health/exercise is popular).  You check in twice a week for accountability, and if you can, you go cheer on other ROW80′ers.

The whole thing lasts just less than three months, and there are four rounds per year.  You can do any or all of them.  If you want to do a NaNoWriMo type challenge, you can.  If you want to write 200 or 2,000 words a day, or ten minutes or two hours a day, you can.  You can even start part way through the round!  It’s up to you and what’s going on in your life.

But if it’s so flexible, why do it?  Because unless you’re an established writer who already has the sit-down-and-do-it compulsion work ethic (not me!), then setting measurable writing goals helps make us sit down and work. The process of writing a novel is long and drawn out, done in small pieces that eventually add up to a complete book.  It’s easy to get bogged down, but if we can see progress toward our overall goal, we’re motivated to keep going.

And let’s face it – part of the fun of NaNo (beyond the zany push for 50,000 words in 30 days) is being part of a group that’s attempting the same challenge.  You’ll be part of ROW80 blog posts and blog hops, cheering other writers on and being cheered on yourself.

So here are my writing goals for 2012′s Round 2 (my first ever).  Head over to JenniferJensen.com for the full list.  I’ll be doing my twice-weekly check in over there, but I’ll post my writing goal updates here too, probably at the bottom of a regular post.

Selected ROW80 Goals:

  • Writing (to polish and send out middle grade novel, and finish rough draft of adult novel): Write 5 days a week, sessions to include writing 1,000 words a day OR working at least one hour on plotting/editing.
  • Social Networking (to connect with other writers, be inspired, build readership): Blog twice a week, plus ROW80 check-ins; get Jen’s Writing Desk going again with at least one blog a week; Tweet or comment on at least 10 other blogs per week.

What about you?  How do you set (and keep working on) your writing goals?  Do you like group challenges?  Are you going to do ROW80? (click here to sign up)

Leave a comment

Great Writerly Blogs and . . . THE WINNER

The contest is over and we had a blast!  Samantha Warren had a humdinger of a 30th birthday celebration, we all had fun visiting various blogs looking for answers and finding interesting new blogging voices, and by now some lucky person has won a Kindle Mini.  I actually came in second on one day’s quiz and won a copy of Reluctant Guardian from Kristy K. James, but since I was participating with my blogs, I wasn’t eligible every day and so didn’t have a chance at the Kindle Mini.  Awwww.  But hey, a Kindle Touch is still on my Christmas list!

Hmm, let’s not get sidetracked here.  The winner of Stephen King’s On Writing here is . . . Francelia Belton!  She’s a writer, a fellow member of the WANA1011 class, and is just setting up her blog.  Maybe when it’s live, she’ll stop by here and post a link!  And thank you to everyone who commented, linked, and tweeted about the Blog Scavenger Hunt and my book giveaway.

Just for stopping by to see if you were the lucky winner, here are some great writerly blogs I found this past week:

  1. Donald Mass asks four critical questions about your protagonist over on Writer Unboxed.  Definitely a must-read!
  2. Jami Gold gives a great look at weaknesses in our writer-selves (everybody sucks at something, right?) and how to turn them into strengths.
  3. And what if you never get published?  (Horrors! Never say never!) Is there a value in writing without publishing? What do you tell your in-laws, BFFs, or co-workers?  What’s the value of writing if you are published?  Holly Lisle has some intriguing thoughts.
  4. On the way to publication (that’s what we’re all after, right?), time gets crunched and stress levels rise.  Jeanette Marie Powell reminds us of some stress-relieving shortcuts to help keep our writing time.  And if her tips don’t match your life, they’ll trigger your own ideas of what to do.

Congrats again to Francelia Belton, and I’ll be back this week with some writing tips. Especially if I use some of Jeanette’s tricks!



Last Day to Enter Book Give-Away: Stephen King’s On Writing

Just a reminder before I get back to my regular blog schedule:  Tonight (12/10/11) at 11:59 pm is the cutoff for entries to win in the book giveaway.

The prize?  A copy of On Writing, by Stephen King.  If you’ve never read it, half of it is awesome writing advice and the other half is the story of his own writing journey.  It’s a great read, with more nuggets of information and inspiration than I can count.  And if you have read it, it makes a great gift to another writer friend.

How to earn entries?  Comment on a blog post (1 entry), subscribe to this blog (2 entries), or post a link to Jen’s Writing Desk on your own blog (2 entries), FaceBook page (1 entry), or Twitter (1 entry).  See my original Scavenger Hunt blog post for the rest of the nitty-gritty details (like US address only, shipping arrangements, etc.).

Good luck, and I promise some more writing tips and prompts soon.

Leave a comment

Turn a Childhood Memory into Fiction

Many of us started out writing stories based on childhood happenings:  being picked on by a bully, feeling left out, falling off a rope swing, getting a pony, getting bucked off a pony.  (Hey, there’s got to be someone else out there that got bucked off a bazillion times, too.)

The problem comes when the story gets stuck in our past and doesn’t gain a life of its own. The process tends to work something like this:

  1. Think of a fun or traumatic incident.
  2. Write it in story form.
  3. Fictionalize it by changing names, places, how many siblings, etc.
  4. Try to make the opening more exciting.
  5. Realize it’s lacking something.
  6. Try to add conflict.  Maybe even add a friend or sibling who wasn’t actually there.
  7. Take a bigger chance and change the dialogue or action to what you wish you said or did, instead of what actually happened.
  8. Give it to your mom, who says, “I remember that!”
  9. Give it to your critique group, who says, “Umm, okay.”
  10. Pull your hair out.

There’s an easier solution.

To truly fictionalize an actual incident, you need to step out of it enough to develop the necessary story elements: vibrant characters, strong conflict, compelling dialogue, etc.  Until you have enough experience to do that directly, try this:

                    Change the gender of your main character.

You’d be amazed at what happens to your story when your bullying victim changes from a girl to a boy.  Or when a boy, not a girl, isn’t allowed to participate in an activity.  Or a girl, not a boy, moves to a new town.

You can keep the conflict, the plot, even the ending.  It may seem like you’re writing the same story, but with a boy instead of a girl (or vice-versa), you’ll gain enough writerly distance to change anything else you want.  All’s fair in love and war and the quest for a stronger story!

Sure, your main character’s motivation may change – boys are different from girls, after all.  His or her reaction to someone may change, or how he goes about getting what he wants, or his attitude as he talks.  Or she. (I hate the whole he/she thing.)

It becomes a story that is informed by your experience, instead of a simple retelling of your experience.  And as a writer, you’ll be better able to follow the story where it wants to go, without the restrictions of your own memory.

Happy writing!

PS–Don’t forget to subscribe/comment/link for a chance to win a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing.  Details here.


Weekly Blog Mashup for Writers

As I browse blogs each week, I’ll post a mash-up of the best ones here.  Some have great writing tips, some are focused on publishing, and some are just plain fun.  Enjoy!

First, some awesome advice from Joanna Penn:  Writer’s Block: The 12-Step Cure

Jane Friedman has a great post over on Writer Unboxed about shifting our normal writers’ attitudes about query letters and blog headlines.

If you’re interested in finding like-minded people on Twitter, with some Twitter etiquette thrown in, try Kristen Lamb’s excellent post here.

Children’s and YA writers know that the kids need to solve their story conflicts themselves, not have parents or teachers step in for them.  But does that mean parents shouldn’t show up at all?  Kait Nolan has some great advice.

And last but not least, have a little fun with I Write Like….  You enter several paragraphs (or more) of your own writing, and it checks for style and word choice and tells you what famous author writes in a similar style.  Of course, if you’re good (unlike me), you wait until after you’ve finished your writing for the day.

I entered several samples, just to make it . . . scientific?  Consistent?  Or maybe just to have fun?  Turns out I wrote like Stephanie Meyer in one blog post, like Stephen King and Gertrude Stein for one character in my women’s novel, and . . . wait for it . . . Margaret Atwood fairly consistently!  Any bits (and the whole thing) of the short story I’ve been working on, plus any of my American character in my women’s novel.   My Irish character scenes are written like James Joyce, but gee, if I change the names from Conal and Murphy to John and Jones, I no longer write like Joyce, I write like Chuck Palahnuik!

If I could choose, I’d emulate Stephen King (without the horror) or Margaret Atwood.  But somehow I think it’s fun, not science.  Drat.



Blog Scavenger Hunt: Win Stephen King’s “On Writing” or a Kindle Mini!

Fellow blogger Samantha Warren is having a blog scavenger hunt to celebrate her 30th birthday, and I’ll be part of it, both here and at JenniferJensen.com. To participate, go to Samantha’s blog (click on the picture above) where you’ll be directed to different blogs each day. She’ll tell you exactly how it works, but the gist is that you’ll have to search for the answer to a particular question on each blog, and then report back to her. She has several prizes, but the person with the most correct answers will win a Kindle Mini! (Hmmm, can I do it too? Have to check the rules!)

In addition to Samantha’s fun, I’ll be providing two prizes of my own. Here at Jen’s Writing Desk, you can win a copy of one of my favorite writing books, Stephen King’s On Writing.  Over at my main blog, you can win a copy of Susan Wiggs’ lovely book, The Goodbye Quilt. (Click here to read an excerpt.)

How do you enter? Good question!

You’ll get two entries if you subscribe to this blog, one entry if you comment on a blog post (only one per post counts), and two entries if you link back to my blog from your own blog post. You can also get an extra entry if you post a link to my blog on Twitter or from your FaceBook page! I should see the comments and link-backs automatically, but drop me a note at Jennifer (at) jenniferjensen (dot) com to get credit for your Tweet or FB post, and for subscribing. Don’t forget to leave me contact details!

Other stuff: The rules are the same for either blog, but each is run as a separate contest. All entries must be received (posted/linked/emailed, etc) before 11:59 pm EST on 12/10/11. The winner will be chosen at random from each blog’s entries. Books will be shipped by USPS Media Mail to U.S. addresses only.

Hope to see you through the week, and good luck!



Great Gifts for Writers

Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays . . . what do you give the writer in your life?  Speaking as one of those writers, I have a few gift ideas.  (Are you reading, Hubby o’Mine?)

A Kindle or Nook e-reader.  I’m not an iPad wanna-have – that’s what I got my fancy phone for.  But boy, do I want a Kindle.  So many books, so little time, and if I have an e-reader, I can tuck it in my purse and always have something to read, not to mention lighter luggage when I travel.  And the frugal Scot in me loves the fact that I can borrow e-books from the library for free!

Computer Stuff.  At the top of this list would be a new computer, of course.  But there are all kinds of other things that we writers need/want:  a laser printer that’s cheaper to run than the ink jet the family shares; a new mouse; a USB hub; a laptop cooling pad; a mouse pad with your picture on it (or the cover of his/her forthcoming book!); and if your writer doesn’t have an external hard drive for back-up, put that first on the list!

Books.  Discover what your writer has on his/her reading list and head for your local bookstore.  If you can’t find out discretely, browse her bookshelf.  Then look for genre-specific books (romance, sci-fi, etc.) or a writing craft book she doesn’t already have (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing are classics).

Subscriptions.  What magazines does your writer crave?  Writer’s Digest? Poets & Writers?  Don’t forget online versions and subscriptions to paid sites such as Writer’s Market or favorite research sites (historic newspapers, anyone?).

Writing Supplies. Writers go through supplies faster than my kids go through cinnamon rolls.  Sticky notes, index cards, a case of printer paper (and the ink to go with!), pens, pencils, notebooks (especially a luxurious Moleskine notebook) would all be welcome.

Software.  Most of us have a word processing program of some sort, but if it’s a 2001 copy, the current version would be nice.  And what about a novel writing/organizing program like Scrivener?  Or an upgrade for our WordPress blog theme, so we can use all kinds of fun fonts and put things exactly where we want them?

Writing Time.  Possibly more precious and more appreciated than any of the above, how about giving your writing sweetie a whole day to write?  Or several hours several times a week for a month?  You take the kids, the cooking duties, clean-up, shopping or whatever, and let your writer write!

Personally, I already have a laser printer, a nicely-running MacBook, Scrivener software, the Weaver Theme upgrade for my blog, and time to write during the day.  (We won’t mention the fact that I have too many things to write before I get back to my novel.)  So my wish list includes a Kindle Touch, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a Kindle Touch, Hooked by Les Edgerton, a USB hub, a Kindle Touch . . . well, you get the idea.

What’s the best writerly gift you’ve received?  What fun gifts have you given to writers?  What’s on your wish list right now?  (Put it in the comments, and then send your significant other here to read it!)

PS:  If you’d like to make a specific wish list on Amazon, click here.  If a purchase is made, I’ll get a smidge of commission and maybe have enough for something (*cough* Kindle *cough*) on my list if Hubby o’Mine doesn’t come through!


How to Succeed as a Writer

Any writer has newbies asking how to make it in the publishing world.  And judging by the tweets and blog posts, most of us are still trying to figure that out ourselves.

The classic response is BIC: Butt in Chair.  (Or, as one writer friend likes to put it, DEC: Derriere en Chaise.)  In addition, you can go with BIC-HOK:  Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.  My favorite is BIC-HOP: Butt in Chair, Heart on Page.

With that in mind, here’s my easy formula for success in writing:

  1. Write, write, write.
  2. Read, read, read.
  3. Write, write, write..
  4. Study, study.
  5. Write, write, write..
  6. Repeat 1-5 for the rest of your writing life.

Notice that there’s a lot more Writing than anything else.  In any worthwhile endeavor, nothing takes the place of practice.  Notice also that Reading is an integral part of writing well.  It has an element of Study, which is why I don’t spend quite as much time there as Reading.

But really all that addresses is how to succeed in writing a great story.  If you’d like some encouragement and a few tips for making it in publishing, head over to a blog post by the awesome Kristen Lamb (author of We Are Not Alone – the Writer’s Guide to Social Media).  She lays it on the line, and it’s amazing how much we’re actually in control of our success.


Finding a Short Story Ending

Plotter or Pantser?

I turned my short story in yesterday and I’ve discovered what happens when a Plotter tries to write as a Pantser:  the story comes out well, but when Pantser gets to the end of the story and she finally has everything figured out, said Pantser has to go back and completely re-write the beginning!

Not fun, but okay.  Seriously.

As mentioned last week, I knew my main character would find her daughter’s diary, be tempted, and finally read it.  I spent an evening writing teenage diary entries (complaints, gossip, and a whole lot about her boyfriend behind closed doors), and the next day it took me several rambling pages of the mother’s worries before she even read it.  I still didn’t know how it would turn out.

When I wrote the second half, I discovered that the teenager the Mom was reacting to wasn’t the deceitful girl becoming sexually involved that I had written a few days before.  Instead, she was still innocent, moody on the outside (what teenager isn’t?) but basically a good kid.  Her mom had read the diary for nothing.  So Mom tries to carry on – shouldn’t be a problem, right? But unbeknownst to Mom, daughter has a small object as a bookmark that had fallen out.  Mom puts it on the dresser while cleaning up, daughter knows diary has been read, and Mom is left clueless on how to rectify the betrayal of trust.

Once the ending had clarified the story for me, I could go back and fix the beginning, putting scenes in that would show the mom better, heighten the conflict and make the daughter’s actions fit a moody-but-innocent teenager.

I guess the result is a story that’s different than if I wrote it planning on Mom’s reaction to lies and cheating and sexual entanglements.  I don’t think the character of the daughter would have changed if I had known the ending toward which I was writing.

On the other hand, I did plan and re-write the first half with this ending in mind, so isn’t that a way of being a plotter?  It took extra revision time, but it worked.

Would I be a Pantser again?  For a short story, probably.  But I sure wouldn’t want to write a novel and have to revise the whole first half that way!