Tag Archives: writing exercise

4 Writing Tips to Boost Your NaNoWriMo and Other Writing Projects

Congratulations, NaNoWriMo participants! You’re halfway to your deadline!

But what if you’re a little behind on your goals? What if it’s even worse — you’re a little behind and starting to dread writing? What if you feel — gasp! — blocked?

Most projects reach a point when the writing, or the writer, seems to  go a bit stale.

1. Party On, Dude!

Writing is essentially a solo art. Even if you are working with someone, at some point it comes down to a person composing the words. This can be especially difficult if you are under the pressure of a deadline and spending all of your spare time alone at your keyboard. Take yourself off to a NaNoWriMo Write-in or writer’s group where you can at least be tapping away in the company of others and at some point socialize when you all take a break.

Don’t have a Write-in scheduled in your area? Organize one! Post a notice on your NaNoWriMo Regional Board with a date, time, & location, or ask if anyone else would like to meet up and work out the details from there. If your not a NaNoWriMo Participant, post some notices at your local library, coffee shop, or other bulletin boards, or use social networking board like Meet-Up or Twitter to spread the word. It only takes one other person for a meet-up. I do recommend that you set up some ground rules starting with a requirement that there’s at least 1-hour of silent writing time before socializing. That way you get some real work done — and have something to talk about!

And don’t forget that there’s no reason you can’t keep meeting as a writing support group after NaNoWriMo ends. There’s always the excuse of a Holiday “Party.”

2. Run Away from Home

If it’s hard to arrange a social gathering, at least change your scenery. Go somewhere different to work — the library, a coffee house (remember J.K. Rowling and The Elephant House?), a cafe (Think of Paris in the 20’s) or even just moving from your office to the back porch.  A new perspective will give you a fresh perspective.

The first two years I did NaNoWriMo I’d make Sundays “Catch-Up Day” and hie myself off to a favorite coffeehouse for at least 3-4 hours of intense effort, trying to make up for lost word count from a hectic week. Sometimes, when I was really far behind, I spend the morning in one coffee house and then move to another and continue to work in the afternoon. Other times I bustle down to the library early to tuck myself into my favorite nook with a garden view. I once discovered that the three other people working there were also doing NaNoWriMo!

The point is to get a change in atmosphere and view. Research shows that a change in the environment often stimulates creative thought. It definitely stimulates new neuron pathways in the brain and often produces boosts in endorphins and dopamine. 

But remember your headphones or ear buds so you don’t get too distracted!

3. Give Yourself a Carrot — and a Stick

Behavioral research has shown that the carrot (a reward) works better for some while a stick (a punishment) works better for others, but the combination seems to work best. So think of a reasonable reward for getting a reasonable and doable writing goal done, like 15-minutes or 200 words, and then a reasonable punishment, such as no sweets for the day, for failing to meet the goal.

Now if you really want to boost the impact, go public! Tell a reliable friend (the one who will remind you of your pledges if you start to cheat), family, or even post it on your social media. By going public with our goals, and the consequences for success or failure, we greatly increase our commitment to them. It’s one of the reasons why Write-ins work — public peer pressure.

Keep the goals, as well as the rewards and punishments, reasonable and attainable. The purpose is to get those fingers on the keyboard, not negative reinforcement for persistent failure to reach outlandish goals. I once promised to watch a certain truly reprehensible “reality” show with a friend if I missed my personal Write-in time. (I loathe “reality” shows!) After one episode I never missed my Write-ins again!

4. Write Whatever the Heck You Want

Sometimes the problem is that we don’t want to write what we’re supposed to be writing. Possibly the scene isn’t working for us or the dialog sounds flat. Forget about it! Write whatever you want — in or about the project, no wasting the writing time tweeting about Benedict Cumberbatch or Jennifer Lawrence, no messaging or checking Facebook.

But if you want to write a dirty limerick about your protagonist instead of that fight scene, go for it! If you really want to write the backstory about the uncle but feel you shouldn’t because someone told you backstory slows down the narrative action, go ahead and write the backstory. It won’t be wasted time. You’ll have a better understanding of the character and who knows, you may be able to work it all in to the novel in revision. Maybe you want to write a series of texts or tweets between two of your characters about a third character? That is perfectly fine!

Take off whatever invisible handcuffs you’ve put on yourself about your project and forget about what you believe you should be writing and write whatever you want in any style or manner you want for at least 15-minutes.

Bonus Tip: Exercise!

Well yes, some physical exercise is good for stimulating the brain, boosting the spirits, and pumping up our confidence, so if you’ve been sitting too long in the same place, I do recommend getting up and doing something physical —  not throwing your laptop in frustration or anything, but positively physical like stretching, walking, cycling, dancing. Dancing freely and with abandon is one of the fastest ways to light up all the joy buttons in the brain, by the way, so don’t hesitate to crank up the volume and tempo and let loose.

But the other thing to try is a quick writing exercise. 

A quick writing exercise, especially when you can’t think what to write, can prime the mental pump. I’ve posted a few quick ones from previous Hugo House Write-o-Ramas here and here and here. Another one I haven’t posted yet based on the Donald Bathelme ‘s story “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning.”

Spend 15-30 minutes writing brief in which other people tell something they remember or think about your character, or the character tells us something he, she or it thinks. For example, if the subject is the character Sherlock Holmes, you might write:

Mrs. Hudson: “You never know what you might find in his rooms. I once swept a hand — a severed hand! — out from under a chair.  Scared me half out of my wits, I don’t mind saying. Of course, it was scientific research but still, it ain’t easy. It did keep Mrs. O’Reilly’s second oldest boy from being hanged in the end. The research, not the sweeping. So I guess its all right, really. Still.”

John Wright, navvy: He’s the toff who bested Jim Sykes inna fight. Ain’t no one ever done that before. Beat Syke’s hand to a bloody pulp with ‘is own stick until it cracked. Funny bloke. He carried off the stick and the dog what Syke’s ‘ad beaten near death just before the fight. Smart though. Wrapped in both in Syke’s coat so’s not to get any blood on ‘is own. Don’t know why he wanted the stick and the dog, though. They’d both be useless after that.

Some Recommended Books for Writing Exercises:

Nature Writing: the value of journaling for writers

Use specific sense-based words & avoid abstract words like "beautiful" in your descriptions

Use specific sense-based words & avoid abstract words like “beautiful” in your descriptions

Now this is irony (unlike the song “Ironic” by Morissette)! My first post-lunch (a vast hoard of potluck foods and beverages from the Richard Hugo House volunteers and Costco) workshop was canceled, however, the workshop I wanted to attend at the start of the day replaced it. It’s enough to make me believe in being medieval (see the earlier post about Medieval in P.A.).

The Nature Writing workshop was presented by Susan Zwinger, a second generation naturalist, nature writer and avid nature journalist. Her journals are works of art by themselves with not only her lovely handwriting, but sketches, paintings and collage.

She emphasized that nature journals are useful to all types of writers, fiction and non-fiction. The point of a nature journal is a) learning to see deeply, with all the senses and b) collecting observations and details about our natural world that can add texture to our writing.

Here are some of Susan Swinger’s tips for keeping a nature journal:

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Ordinary People: a writing exercise to capture characterization

Try writing Flash Fiction vignettes from different viewpoints and moments in the character's life

Try writing Flash Fiction vignettes from different viewpoints and moments in the character’s life

Writer and teach Margot Case offered a brilliant workshop at he Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama workshop entitled Ordinary People. We read excerpts from “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” by Donald Bartheleme, Sixty Stories.

I’d tried The Dead Father by Bartheleme, but found it at the wrong time and had never tried Donald Bartheleme again. What a mistake! I’m hot footing it to the book store to find more of his short stories.

Essentially, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is written as a series of vignettes supposedly from Robert Kennedy’s life by various people’s viewpoints. It’s similar to a collection of Flash Fiction.

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Memory Babe: a writing exercise inspired by Jack Kerouac

Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Wow! The beat goes on! Molten meltdown of mental memes send me searching shelves for slender volumes.

I’ve tried reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac three times in my life. I forced myself to finish it last time. But apparently I was reading the wrong Kerouac or the wrong format.

My 1st choice for second period of the Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama was overflowing. So continuing the medieval mind theme for the day (still taking things a signs and portents), I’m at the Jack Kerouac class — Memory Babe with Deborah Woodard as our instructor.

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Pare It Down: a workshop on strong writing

Try using single syllable words to focus your writing. It can make it stronger and more dynamic.

Try using single syllable words to focus your writing. It can make it stronger and more dynamic.

My first Write-O-Rama workshop was “Pare It Down” with Anne Leigh Parrish. A workshop to get us to write simply and therefore strongly. Think Hemingway. Not one of my favorites. Not as pathetically macho as Mailer, but too focused so-called “masculine” values for me.

The idea was to choose strong words;  words of one syllable. If we couldn’t write with monosyllables, we were to go back and edit replacing polysyllabic words with monosyllabic ones.

Exercise: Pretend to write a letter using words of only one syllable.

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Being Medievel in P.A. About Write-O-Rama

In one of those “Be Careful What You Wish For” parables, I’ve spent most of this year being terribly useful. Shortly after I started working on my NaNoWriMo revisions in February, I was hired to fill-in as Interim Executive Director for an area Chamber of Commerce during a particularly nasty internal dust-up. (Bit like the The War of the Roses except with local business people and the local newspaper acting as the bad lawyer who eggs everyone on with a touch of Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics.) What was suppose to be part-time proved full-time (although not all the time was paid) and on top of that I spent time with an area design firm (where I discovered I couldn’t work in a fishbowl with my boss bellowing into phones next to me and the only view a sliver of sky and branch through a slit window near the ceiling).

Needless to say, writing time was limited. My blogging time was nil.

After doing an 8-week hell gig following the Chamber of Commerce, I desperately wanted to get back tow writing. I’d been reading a number of self-help books for some research (no, really, I’ve got a character who’s a self-help, woo-woo junkie). I’d just finished Deanna Davis’  The Law of Attraction in Action: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Transforming Your Life (No Matter Where You’re StartingFrom) — and decided “What the heck. I’m feeling good, let’s try give it a whirl!”

Now let me emphasize I’m a scientific method kind of gal. No healing mantras, aura diagnostics or just think positive and it will happen for me. But my mom always used to say, “Be careful what you think because you’ll attract it to you.” And I was ready for a bit of optimism. My husband had been laid off just the week before 12 days short of his 13th Anniversary with the company. And I’d been working with a couple of clients who were driving me a little nuts.

So I started working on my writing and focusing on how good I felt when working and how I great it felt when I was with other writers sharing stimulating ideas. I began focus all the good feelings writing to the idea of finding new writers to meet and getting a book out the door in 2009. Out of the blue an email arrived from the Richard Hugo House announcing the winter Write-O-Rama was the following Saturday!

Richard Hugo House in Seattle offers a home to writers and readers of all types through events, performances, classes, a library, residencies and more.  They have a huge zine library (they say the world’s largest at 20K publications, but it’s extremely slim in SF (let alone media fan zines) where zines were born in the 1930’s) and cafe with stage and an auditorium. And like all art non-profits, they can certainly use donations right now.

The Write-O-Rama is an entire day of 1-hour writing workshops by some notable area authors from a variety of fields that anyone can attend by getting (or making) donations of at least $45US. Of course, they’d like you to raise more if possible.

Of course, I was having some trouble justifying taking off for Seattle for a day of writer’s workshops no matter how noble the purpose and reasonable the cost.
Having just finished Ms. Davis’s book, I decided to be medieval in P.A. and take the arrival of the Write-O-Rama email as a sign. (In case you haven’t read it, there’s a terrific book called Medieval in LA by Jim Paul. The lead character has up to the start of the book had a modern mind, meaning he doesn’t believe in facts and reasoning as opposed to signs and portents of a medieval mind. But after an accident on a plane to L.A., he decides for one weekend he will being medieval and make decisions based on “signs”. Well written and it definitely makes you think about your choices.) I decided it was a sign I should go to the Write-O-Rama.

I had to either get written pledges for donations in 1 day or cough up the $45US myself. I decided to put Ms. Davis’s beliefs to the test. Now Ms. Davis doesn’t believe that the Laws of Attraction means you simply “put it out into the universe” or “want it with all your heart.” Nope. She believes that once you focus on what you want with laser-like intensity, your mind tells you what action to take next. My mind decided I should email a three friends who supported my writing efforts with the link, an explanation of the situation and asking that if they were thinking about buying me a holiday gift, they make the gift a donation pledge to Write-O-Rama in my name by 5pm PST that day.

At 4:45pm, knowing that 2 had donated but not knowing exactly how much, I pledged $20 for myself, emailed a friend in Seattle about getting together afterwards, and filled the car with gas. The friend in Seattle suggested I spend the night so I made a reservation at the Apple Genius Bar (hey, if I’m going in to the big city, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get those files transferred from my old iBook) and packed a bag.

To cut a long story short, I arrived at the Richard Hugo House to find that my total donations online were $80 in 5 hours. It proved the emotional and mental boost I needed.

Am I still skeptical of Ms. Davis’s methods? Well, one of my friends has offered to pay my tuition to a select writer’s conference in her town where editors and agents meet with writers to review proposals. And the friend is giving me crash space and carpool as well.

I’m welling over with gratitude to my friends and optimism about the New Year. (And pulling out projects to edit starting January 1st!)

How were the workshops? The short answer – Fantastic! The long answer – Keep reading. I’m going to run posts all this week about the event overall and the ones I attended.