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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Spelling Tricks

What’s your biggest spelling pet-peeve? There are 3 that rank at the top for me: 1) to/two/too; 2) there/their/they’re; and 3) your/you’re. Even though most people know the differences between the meanings for each of these common mistakes, they blunder all over the place with them and think it just doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter, so maybe these tricks will help you keep it straight and make it easier to avoid these mistakes in future writing.

“To” is only 2 letters and it implies direction: from X to X. Example: I’m going to give this pen to John. The first “to” is the direction of intent: an action will take place; the second “to” is the direction of the actual action: the pen moved from X to X.

“TWO” is the number after 1 and before 3. The “w” is your clue that the #2 is spelled T-W-O because the “w”, centered between 2 other letters, has 2 cheeks to its butt that sits on the line.

“Too” means more, or also. It has the letter “o” in it more than any other spelling. It has an “o” and it has another “o” too! Because of this spelling, you can visualize the concept of more, more, more! Example: I want ice cream, too! This means that more than one person wants ice cream, or that one person wants more than just ice cream.

The trick to these is to take off the “T” and see what you’ve got:
“There” is a place. Take off the “T” and you’ve’ got “here”. “Here” is a place and we all know that quite clearly!

“Their” implies ownership, something belongs to some group of people. Take off the “T” and you’ve got “heir” – someone’s rightful ownership of something passed on or given.

“They’re” is the contraction of “they” + “are”. Example: they’re going to the party. Take off the “T” and you’ve got instant enthusiasm: Hey! Are you guys going to the party!

“Your” implies ownership. Let the “r” at the end of the word lead you into critical doubt: you – really the owner??

“You’re” is the contraction between “you” + “are”. “You’re” plus one more word makes a full and complete sentence; this is something you can’t do with the other spelling (your). Example: You’re great! If you mess these two up, you make no sense at all. “Your great” leaves the reader having a hey day with a wild imagination – your what is great?! Oh my!

The statement, “Your my best friend” drives me nuts. Whenever I read this I feel a bit paranoid and extra protective of my stuff. My what is your best friend??

Write Before You Speak!

How many great ideas have you had that never get written? Like a first impression, inspiration really only gets one chance. That’s why I’m a firm believer in selfishly hoarding and protecting all great ideas! I never share them, no matter how excited I am when they pop into my head.

I have found over the years that if I talk about an idea before I write it, it requires tremendous labor to put it on the page. And then, once written, I’m stunned by its crappy appearance. It’s dry, dull, dead. It’s stilted, stale. And there is no return, not way to go back and redo it. No amount of scratching, waiting, editing, or rewriting will ever bring back the charm and magic of that initial great idea.

When editing another writer’s work, I do so with questions. “What do you mean here?” “What does this feel like?” “What is the character thinking now?” “Why…?” Inevitably the author wants to tell me all about it, right then and there as soon as they see my questions. I understand this desire. It’s only natural. We writers spend so much time in isolation that it’s really hard to resist the energy that flows between two passionate souls. And when it comes to our writing, yeah, our souls are unleashed in a playground of passions.

But hold back! Grab the passion and run to your favorite hide-out where you can break free – totally free – like belting out your favorite rock songs in the shower. Run! Bunker down! And Write!

These are not rhetorical questions, however. I really do want the author to answer them. In fact, I hope that the questions inspire elaborate answers that then trigger more questions! Play with the ideas; play with the words; play to your heart’s content, but for now, play alone!

Whatever you do, don’t answer any questions about your work with words that speak through your voice! Use instead the silent words inside your head, the words that can only come alive on the blank page. Trust me, these words are much better than the words that stumble out of your mouth.

If you want to be a writer, write first and speak last (or, in some cases, don’t speak at all). If you want to be a writer, shut up, sit down, and WRITE!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fighting Writer's Block

Writer’s block is very real. No matter what kind of writing you do or for what purpose you write, writer’s block is very disturbing. If writing is your livelihood, writer’s block is worse than disturbing; it even threatens your ability to pay the bills and support your family! But even if writing isn’t your main source of income, writer’s block robs you of your very essence and therefore, it can be devastating.

One reason writer’s block is so terrible is because it is the opposite of something really great. When your writing muse graces you with her presence, you behave as a genius, frantically scribbling and tapping wildly at your keyboard; you produce amazing work and you soar on a natural high. Then comes writer’s block. You feel abandoned and everything about you is barren. Barren in your mind and in your spirit: this is writer’s block, the fall after a surge of great writing. This is writer’s block and the reality is it happens. It happens to all of us.

We usually don’t see it coming; writer’s block just drops in one day and suddenly, the mind is dull. When this happens, you basically have two choices. You can lay down your pen and go into sulking - a behavior that will no doubt send you into a downward spiral of low self-esteem and depression, or you can turn your dry spell into an opportunity for growth.

That’s right. Writer’s block can actually be good for you as a writer. I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me here and look at this obstacle with an open mind.

Like anything we do in life, we get into a rut, even with our writing. You write about the same stuff; you use the same words; you even write in the same style. No wonder the muse leaves for awhile! Don’t fret it, though, realize instead that this is your muse calling you to stretch your brain muscles a bit and strengthen your skills. Take advantage of writer’s block and use that time to try something new.

Here are a couple of ideas:

1. Reflective writing

Have a discussion with yourself about writer’s block via writing. Write out your struggle with writer’s block.

A) Give it a personality and tan on the heroic role of defeating the villain. Yell at it. Curse it’s will. Send it off to a place “where the sun don’t shine”.

B) Ask yourself what you have to gain by bowing to writer’s block. Answer yourself in writing, of course. If you have to wallow in self pity, do so in writing, but conclude your piece with what it feels like to give in to defeat. Hang the conclusion where you can see it and read it over and over until you are ready to rise up and get over it.

2. Revisit and Rework

Go back to pieces of writing that you have already completed and take a look at it from a different perspective.

A) Analyze the characters and/or ideas in the piece (do this analysis in writing, of course). Pretend you are a student in a literature or logic class and analyze with a critical mind.

B) Rewrite it from a different perspective. If it is in first person, write it in third person, or keep it in first person, but change the voice; if it is a narrative, make it a personal letter. Whatever you do, just step into another voice and tell the story from a different point of view.

C) Write it in a different tense. Make it an historical piece or turn it into a futuristic fantasy. Try putting it all in present tense – that is always a challenge!

D) Take one or two points in the piece and expand that section. You may even be able to take one point and expand it such that you can write another whole independent piece from that later on.

Writer’s block is very real and, like the common cold, it is unavoidable. So when it hits, hit back!

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The Value of Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are the best tool to use for writing practice and development. Prompts provide you with the means for discipline the help you use your time efficiently. Best of all, writing prompts are the spring board for unforeseen surprises and great new discoveries both personally and professionally.

Writing prompts are prescribed words, phrases, questions, statements, quotes, thoughts, anything that is already prepared that you don’t have to conjure up on the spot, anything that you can use as a starting point for your writing. You may certainly create your own writing prompts, but you should do so in advance so that when you sit down to use one, your mind is blank, empty, open and unsuspecting. The purpose of writing prompts is to warm up your mind and get the writing nurons in your brain snapping with creative energy. When you randomly choose a writing prompt and write to it, you are forcing yourself to stretch and grow in ways you would otherwise never encounter.

I use writing prompts every day before I begin my regular work. I find that by starting my writing sessions with a random prompt, I am more ready to delve into projects currently in progress. The prompts help trigger vocabulary and concepts I often use later in the day. They also wake up my mind, telling it that it is time to write. In this way, the habit of starting my writing day with a prompt is like any other preparatory routine that gets you ready to work.

In addition to being a skill, writing is also a habit and a practice. Anything you do requires practice; you do what you do well because of practice. Even great performers don’t just show up on stage and perform a master piece. No, they practice. They show up for practice time whether they feel like it or not. I guarantee they do mundane and repetitious exercises. Professional ballerinas still stand at the barre and do plies, for example, and professional musicians run scales to warm up their fingers and voices.

We have to treat our writing the same way. Writing prompts are the practice exercises that lead you to great masterpieces.

If you don’t have a particular assignment or project you are working on, you may find yourself at a loss when you sit down to write. Many writers complain that they don’t know what to write. This leads to a lot of wasted time. If you use writing prompts, you will use your time more efficiently because as soon as you sit down, you have an immediate direction to go with your writing time.

One of the biggest rewards of writing prompts is the plethora of secret surprises they have to offer. You may choose a random word that, at first, seems to mean nothing in particular to you. Something as simple as the word “hands”, for example, may lead you to recall thememory of your grandfather who died when you wer a young child. Then, in writing about him, you may uncover a life lesson he demonstrated that, as a young child, you wouldn’t have recognized, but that now, as an adult, is just the “advice” you need to hear at this point in your life. By forcing yourself to grapple with the prompt, move through the “this means nothing to me” stage and on to the free writing that has its own animated agenda, you end up with ideas and insights that literally fall into your lap – often little gems that lead to great stories or articles.

How it Works

  1. Choose a prompt. Prompts are all around you. Just look through any of your books about writing or Google “writing prompts”. Don’t contemplate when you get a prompt and don’t turn your back on one thinking the next one will be “better”. Just take one and force yourself to write on it.
  2. Time yourself and write to a specific prompt. Five minutes is a good amount of time to start with, especially if writing to prompts is new to you. Set a timer and write frantically the whole time. Even if you don’t know what to write and aren’t at all inspired, simply write “I don’t like this prompt….” As you argue your way around the prompt, you will eventually come to something. If not, you will at least be actively practicing writing. Once you are comfortable with five minutes, increase your time to ten. You may go as long as fifteen minutes, but don’t go beyond that or you will loose the power of the prompt. If you are on a roll and really like what you are doing, you can certainly continue. But as a general rule of thumb, never demand yourself to go beyond fifteen minutes. If you can’t get something going after fifteen minutes, then that particular prompt simply isn’t meant to be. That’s OK. Let it go and try again with something new the next day.

Writing prompts are an invaluable tool for all writers no matter how novice or experienced you may be. Writing prompts are the means to practice, develop and grow as a writer. Chances are, you’ll write something really terrible to most of the prompts that you use. But that’s OK. The point of practice isn’t to be great; it’s to become great.

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I Don't Feel Like Writing Today

I don’t feel like writing today. I don’t have anything to say. Wait, that’s not true: I always have something to say and today, like every other day, I have way more to say than I have time or energy to say it. I just don’t feel like enduring the process today.

Everything I start gets mundane even before I’ve gotten to the first point. My writing is bland and it is boring me to death! I guess I’m getting on my own “last Jesus nerve”! (I love that phrase. My dear Southern friend, Carolyn, blurted it out one day and it so tickled me.)

I usually like myself and I enjoy my own company. When I write, I like being able to hang out with “ME”. Writing is a very solitary activity, so befriending oneself is of utter importance. Well, today I just wish that “ME” would leave me alone!

Blah, blah, blah! She just keeps rambling on and on about nothing!

Have you ever been at a party or some other social function when you hear yourself talking and you just can’t believe how stupid you sound? You scream to yourself inside your head, “Shut up!” Yet the outside self just keeps going on, this constant, obnoxious drone. That’s what my writing sounds like to me today. It’s an irritating squeaking voice, one that grates on the nerves like fingernails on a chalk board.

What I have to say is interesting stuff – no, it’s better than that – its fascinating! Its fascinating inside my head; but when it comes out on the paper it is a heavy, droning, monotone. It’s painfully boring!

“Shut up!” I bark to myself, “who cares? Nobody!” I try another sentence. “Give it up, you fool!” I think that if I just put the general ideas down, I can go back later and write it with a new voice. “What a waste of time.” It’s not like I have nothing else to do. Good grief, I have half-read books all over the house that I need to return to; I have to fix the dryer so I can finish the laundry; I have children with needs and dogs that are waiting to be fed. Oh yeah, and I have a “real job” I have to do to today, too.

“So shut up! Stop writing!!”

My writing muse smiles ever so slightly, a tiny upward curvature at the corners of her mouth that draw my attention her way. She nods, a movement so small that it is nearly invisible, yet I saw it. She looked at me, and she nodded approval.

I don’t have to write anything at all, but I do have to sit with the empty page. That much she asks of me. I can finally shut up, knowing that I can not shut down.

I don’t feel like writing today, and that’s OK.

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