Category Archives: The Writing Process

#wowchallenge recap – last chance, romance

It’s not a beautiful day here in Boston, even though tomorrow is supposed to be 70 degrees. Coincidentally, that means it’s a great day to sharpen your writing skills (no matter where you are!) and enter the #wowchallenge before tomorrow (the last day to enter). Unplug yourself for a little while and use this to clear your mind and get something accomplished today.

Below is a full rundown of the 5 writing prompts that you can use. Enter by posting in the comments section, or by emailing me at joan@jfsmithbooks.com if you’re too shy to post.

For a full rundown of each prompt – including prize details – click on the numbered #wowchallenge link. Remember that you can use these prompts for any kind of writing: nonfiction, fiction, poems, short stories, screenplays, essays, expository… whatever strikes your mood.

Until then: happy writing.

#wowchallenge 1: Opening & Closing Lines
First, come up with an alluring opening line based on this picture.

Hint: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

Then, come up with your closing line. You can choose to either: 1. Come up with a line based solely off of the first picture/what might happen there, or 2. Invent an entirely new line based off of the picture below, and use your creative magic to get from A to B.

Rooftop Pool

 

#wowchallenge 2:  Extra, extra – Read All About It
Skim through your local newspaper, favorite online news source, or a stray magazine. Don’t read the stories, though – just look at the headlines. Pick a headline at random (or, really, whichever strikes you). Then, write a brief poem or flash fiction based on the direction that the headline sends you.

#wowchallenge 3: Dream On
Ask a couple of people about a dream that they’ve had recently, or their most distinct/weirdest dream ever. Choose any or all of the following options.

  1. Use one as inspiration to write a poem, microfiction, or short story.
  2. Use one to write a fake book blurb.
  3. Think about – and develop a character who would be in one, and fill out the 25 questions.

#wowchallenge 4: Bite Sized
Write a poem, flash fiction, or short story only using words that have 5 letters or less. 

#wowchallenge 5: Art as Inspiration
Craft a creative piece that is inspired by a work of art. Writers find inspiration everywhere: coffee shops, within their personal relationships, the frenetic energy of a city, the calm tranquility of the countryside. This time, you’ll compose something based off of an image. You can choose one of your own (if you do, please post the link!) or use Robert Longo’s “Gretchen” as inspiration.

 

This is our print of Gretchen. She hangs out in the entryway to our home.

This is our print of Gretchen. She hangs out in the entryway to our home.

A close-up of Robert Longo's "Gretchen"

A close-up of Robert Longo’s “Gretchen”

Contact me with any questions that you might have. Enjoy!

WOW challenge 3: dreams

Composition Notebook

Welcome to the third installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wow challenge: dreams.

After a series of really crazy, vivid dreams, I began thinking about keeping a dream journal by my bed. I recently posted about dreams that my friends have had, and how I use them to sharpen my writing skills.

For example, I woke up this morning after having a dream where my husband told me to go out on a date. I went out with someone named Leonard, who took me to a restaurant where a child asked me: “Mommy, can I have some orange juice?” When I said I didn’t have children, Leonard kidnapped me for seven years, but then I “woke up” in the dream (it was a dream-within-a-dream wake up) and I had only been gone one night. I think I need to lay off the sleeping pills.

my copy of MY FRIEND LEONARD, by James Frey

book cover of a copy of MY FRIEND LEONARD, by James Frey

Hence, today’s writing challenge.

Ask three people about a dream that they’ve had recently, or the most distinct/weirdest dream ever. Or use my dream – whatever works for you!

  1. Use one as inspiration to write a poem, microfiction, or short story. 
  2. Use one to write a fake book blurb. 
  3. Think about – and develop a character who would be in one, and fill out the 25 questions. 

 

Here’s a copy of what I did a couple weeks ago:

One friend – we will call her Louise –  had a dream that her dad was killing people. She figured it out and wasn’t sure if she should report him.

What if you turned this into a book blurb (also called a jacket summary, or a book synopsis – it’s the writing on the back of a paperback, or on the inside of a hardcover)? This one is particularly funny, because her dad is a junior high science teacher.

“When people in her sleepy town begin dying, fifteen-year-old Louise is just as scared as everyone else… until she figures out who the killer is: her father. Funny, charming, and smart, Mr. Ridge is every student’s dream science teacher. Could he instead be the town’s worst nightmare? How do you love someone who might be evil? And, most importantly: can a daughter turn in her father to the police?”

And now, it’s a young adult mystery book blurb.

Science Teacher Serial Killer

Another friend – we’ll call her Marie – said: “A few weeks ago, I had a bad dream about me starring in a horror movie with Jamie Lee Curtis. But in the dream, I knew what was going to happen because I had seen the movie before, but then all of a sudden, we were in a scene that I didn’t recognize and the killer was about to murder me. Then I woke up.”

By Josh Hallett at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/ → http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/4700190029/  via Wikimedia Commons

This movie-within-a-dream trick isn’t new (Inception, anyone?). In fact, it’s fodder for a pretty good fantasy dystopia.

In a world where… (kidding.)

“Marie has had a pretty normal life, until one morning, when she wakes up – or doesn’t. She’s become trapped in a dream world, where she knows what’s about to happen… and she doesn’t like it. Marie fears she’ll never get back to reality. The only thing that can get her out? A drastic, dangerous plan that relies on the help of a mysterious stranger named Jamie. Can they succeed?”

Sure, they’re not the best written or most intriguing book blurbs around, but they’re fun to use as practice. What about you? What’s the strangest dream you’ve ever had? Do you ever use it in your writing? (Stay tuned for a writing exercise about this coming up in a few short weeks!)

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

 

 

wow challenge 2: extra, extra

Composition Notebook

This challenge is meant to stimulate your brains into writing something – nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and more – into a new direction. I came up with this post pre-bombing yesterday. It is too true that these tragedies bring out media in droves, which makes this prompt all the more relevant.

*

Welcome to the second installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wow challenge: Extra, extra – read all about it.

Skim through your local newspaper, favorite online news source, or a stray magazine. Don’t read the stories, though – just look at the headlines.

Pick a headline at random (or, really, whichever strikes your fancy). Then, write a brief poem or flash fiction based on the direction that the headline sends you.

Need inspiration? Here is a screenshot of the Boston.com homepage, for example, from one week ago today (April 9):

Headlines galore!

Headlines galore!

“Mayday Mayday: A True Story by the Man Who Fell” – um, amazing.

Here’s an example of one I wrote about seven years ago. (And now, I feel old.)

“Spare Dreams”

He perches on the city street. His haunted eyes
peer over his colorless beard. I think
a worn, tattered coat even adorns his shapeless body.
Gritty and pale, his hand shakes a battered cup.

“Spare dreams? Can you spare some dreams?” I deposit
one of mine in his cup. It was an old one, anyway,
that I’d given up some time ago.
He won’t know the difference.

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

 

wow challenge 1: opening and closing lines.

Composition Notebook

Welcome to the first installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6) image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Today’s #wow challenge tackles opening and closing lines. It’s in the spirit of John Irving, who always knows his closing line before he begins writing a book. According to Irving at a recent J.F.K. forum, his working closing line for his upcoming novel is: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

Today’s challenge is a two-part one. You can use it to bracket a poem, short story, or even a novel, if you’re brave.

First, come up with an alluring opening line based on this picture.

Hint: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

If you’re curious: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

Then, come up with your closing line. You can choose to either:

1. Come up with a line based solely off of the first picture/what might happen there, or

2. Invent an entirely new line based off of the picture below, and use your creative magic to get from A to B.

Rooftop Pool

This picture was taken on a late August morning at the top of a hotel in a relatively minor European metropolitan city.

BONUS: If you can guess both cities, then you get your name in the hat one extra time. (Your writing doesn’t have to be set in either one, but the pictures should serve as inspiration.)

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

a conversation with khaled hosseini

Today, I had the opportunity to participate in a live chat with bestselling author Khaled Hosseini, hosted by People.com

via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Department of State (U.S. Embassy in London), via Wikimedia Commons

Readers of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are already quite familiar with his work. Hosseini also has a new book entitled And the Mountains Echoed (coming out on May 21). Hosseini came off as funny, engaging, humble, and grateful, which are pretty standard good-guy character traits.

A couple things I learned about Hosseini:

  • He was born right in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is now a Goodwill Envoy for the UNHCR. (Very cool.)
  • He’s a trained medical doctor who left medicine for writing.
  • He doesn’t write with an outline in mind; he prefers to be surprised. 
By Joe Burger from Siegburg, Germany (flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

By Joe Burger from Siegburg, Germany (flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

One thing this blog focuses a lot on is the writing process – especially the “unplugged” version. When asked about his writing process, Hosseini writes:

“I write at home, on a computer, in a room I have turned into office. I write from morning, from about nine AM, to about 2PM. My goal is to get about 3 pages a day. Some days I exceed that and other days that goal seems far too ambitious. I have written as well in libraries and coffee shops, but they are often too noisy and I get distracted.”

On advice for new writers (the text in bold is what I think best sums it up):

“I wish I had some illuminating, earth shattering advice to give to new writers, but the truth is that, the way I see it, there are two things that are indispensable if one wants to be a writer: First, you have to actually write (I cannot tell you the number of times people walk up to me and tell me they are sure they have a novel in them if they could get around to it.). Second, you have to read. You have to read a lot, and all the time. I think writers learn from each other, especially young writers. The business side of it is a combination of luck and perseverance, assuming the manuscript is of quality. There are entire books written on ways to get published, etc. But the first thing is to write a compelling story. If you have written one, then you have to believe in it and persevere and hopefully you will catch a break and get the manuscript into the right hands.

I have no doubt that I’ll download this book ASAP, but if you’re curious about the description of an upcoming book directly from the source, here it is:

And the Mountains Echoed is structured a little bit like a tree. There is a trunk at the center, and then a number of branches that sprout from it. The trunk of the book, if you will, is about a brother and his sister, named Abdullah and Pari, whom we meet them in the early 1950’s when they are ten and three respectively. They live in a remote, impoverished little village south of Kabul with their father, their stepmother and a little half-brother. Abdullah and Pari have a very close, tender, and loving relationship, they are really each other’s world. They are, as one character puts it, two people in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression. But when we meet them, the family is at a crossroads and has to make a painful, agonizing decision, the end result of which is the rupture of the bond between Abdullah and his little sister. And it’s this act of rupture, borne out of desperation, that sets the rest of the book into motion. And what the book does is then pursue the far reaching ripples of this event, both geographically, across continents, and through time, and it examines a number of different characters, who whether they know it or not, are connected to one another because their lives have been touched and transformed by this early event in the story.”

The full session (available here) was truly eye-opening. Thank you to Khaled Hosseini for the time and invaluable advice!

Next week, I’ll be hosting a “Week of Writing” (WOW) contest with a double prize! Stay tuned. All of the details will be released tomorrow.

 

5 signs your memoir has the it factor

Simply put, a well-done memoir is an unforgettable read. In a world where anyone can be internet famous, though, what makes a memoirist attractive? A memoir might have the It Factor if it addresses:

  1. The world. When a story is more than just about you; or when it reaches into a broader issue, perhaps. No one cares about your problems unless you de-individualize them. In most of Augusten Burroughs’s work, he alternates between perfect self-deprecation, addiction, humor, and family trauma with staggering brilliance. 
  2. Emotion. Writers must be what author Holly Robinson calls “brutally honest on every emotional level” in order to truly connect with their audiences. Hit ‘em where it hurts. 
  3. The unanswerable. As of today’s date, two of the top six NYT bestsellers concern the subject of heaven (Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, and Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo “with” Lynn Alexander). Other notables: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which concerns both race and science and has been on the top 20 list for a staggering 108 weeks. 
  4. A successful struggle. Read through any book jacket and see that nine times out of ten, the writer is going to take a triumphant journey while struggling vs. A) drugs, B) rotten parents, C) other addictions (sex, gambling, food), D) death, E) weight loss/gain, F) disease.
  5. Nonconformity. Your family cannot be normal. (I know, I know: your family isn’t normal.) But take Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, for instance, where her family lives as nomads. That’s not normal.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

French Memoir. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other important things to remember about writing memoirs:

  1. You’re not important, or unique. Everybody wins, remember? You probably won’t have a successful memoir, unless you’re incredibly successful or famous already. (Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling represent 10% of today’s bestseller list.)
  2. A simple search for “memoir” on Amazon, as of today, returns 295,114 hits. That is insane
  3. Your memory might be an elephant or a sieve, but no one’s is completely accurate. Everyone remembers things differently. 
  4. Your protagonist – so, you – has to undergo that transportive change. If your memoir is about your struggle with gambling, and you played Keno last night, well… keep a diary, save the memoir.
  5. Regular writing conventions still apply.

I am a huge proponent of the memoir/nonfiction essay, however, and think that these have a real and increasing value in our culture. The New York Times “Lives” section. Salon. Slate. The Sun. The Real Simple “Life Lessons” column.

unwind.

unwind.

I’m not certain my life is interesting enough for a full memoir, but I do have this blog. Blogs themselves are (typically) memoir-driven, right? In the November 2008 Atlantic, professional blogger Andrew Sullivan writes of the “confessional genre,” noting that ”…a blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one.”

Let’s look at two people who draw in Americans daily.

Last night, my husband said that I was not American because I don’t like cooked fruit, any pie, burgers, or hot dogs. I countered back with the fact that I am most certainly American, because I am obsessed with Amanda Bynes’s Twitter page. (I want her to make a Britney Spears style comeback in the worst way possible.)

This version of Bynes is way different than 2013 NYC Bynes, right?

Image By Shay Sowden, via Wikimedia Commons

Image By Shay Sowden, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a million terrible things going on in the world. Childhood obesity, the gun control debate, foreign relation anxieties, the stabbings at Lone Star College. But the internet is absolutely aflame today with Lindsay Lohan’s interview on Letterman last night. Letterman starts out by showing a picture of Lohan from her Parent Trap days (reminding the audience of what has since been lost). Soon, he asks: “Aren’t you supposed to be in rehab now? … What are they rehabbing? … What are they going to work on when you walk through the door?” Lohan breaks the cardinal rule of the “natural late night talk show rapport” by commenting, “We didn’t discuss this in the pre-interview,” which reminds the audience that jokes are pre-planned, that celebrities might not be as cool and calculated as we think. (She also does this without any of her face moving except for her lips, which makes her that much more interesting.) Letterman fumbles with a few more questions; Lohan cringes and tries to change the subject:

Letterman: “Do you have addiction problems? Is it alcohol? Do you drink too much?”
Lohan (pause, glare): “We’ve discussed this in the past.”

Later, Letterman presses on about rehab, but Lohan deflects: “Let’s, let’s… we’re here for a movie.”

Watch the entire trainwreck here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEF53jCmL3c

Despite the things of actual importance, there is still room for vapid fascination. Is it because it’s a joyride for us to watch someone who does not value his life the same way we do? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves? Whatever it is, remember this: Instagram is getting over 5 million uploads per day, and the most-watched video of 2012 was Gangham Style. 

What are your thoughts? Next week, I’ll be hosting a “Week of Writing” (WOW) contest with a double prize! Stay tuned.

5 things friday: 5 likable movie characters

I’m going to go ahead and call the coherency of this post into question, because my insomnia kicked up into high gear last night. Despite being physically in bed at 11 p.m., which I almost never do, I was wide awake until at least 4:35 this morning. When my alarm went off at 7:19, I was furious. And now I’m cross-eyed.

On the plus side, I did a lot of thinking about this new novel I started this week. After writing 1100 words in about an hour yesterday, I was feeling good – and I had a great idea somewhere around 2:45 this morning.

One thing I’m thinking about, though, is the oft-repeated concept of “making a protagonist likable.”

I completely understand this concept, especially as a reader. I root for the characters who I like. Right? If a character is whiny, or annoying in some other way, then you’re not going to particularly care where things wind up.

But sometimes, the most successful books have really unlikable characters. I’m sure I’m not alone on this, but I can’t stand Holden Caulfield. He is petulant and narcissistic, and I don’t care if he succeeds or fails.

It should go without saying that what makes one character likable for someone isn’t going to cut it for all readers. For example, when a character is very sweet and kind, I immediately dislike him and become suspicious of his motives.

I had upwards of 17 professors who warned against making a protagonist a “damsel in distress.” I agree, completely. But then, characters like Bella Swan of Twilight fame and Anastasia Steele of the Fifty Shades trilogy rule the bestseller lists; thus, I become bewildered. (Sidebar. The last names in this series are Steele and GREY? Are you kidding me? Steel grey?) In one scene, Bella is actually carried by her supernatural hero because she is so tired.

So for today’s 5 things Friday, I asked myself what my favorite characters possess – and how that makes me like them.

5 Things Friday: Likability Edition

5. Humor.
I could do a million 5 things Fridays on my favorite characters in movies, but honestly: why do I love Forgetting Sarah Marshall so much? Scenes like this.

4. Jerks who do nice things for people.
I suppose this is really just a form of redemption, but when a jackass does something nice, it’s worth way more than when an already-kind person does something fantastic. It’s like brushing your teeth. Everyone does it twice a day, so it’s pretty routine, but what about someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury who brushes his teeth on his own for the first time? Heart becomes warm.

3. Innocent people who are doomed by the world at large.
In a literature sense, it’s easy to think of this as the Lennie complex (Of Mice and Men). These characters break my heart into a thousand sad pieces. The #1 soul that takes the cake is John Coffey from The Green Mile. 

2. The presence OR absence of self deprecation.
In real life, I love self deprecating people. For example, Jennifer Lawrence describes her first meeting with Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence as follows: ”Our first conversation was on the phone. I was in the bathtub, and I had to tell him that I was in the bathtub because I was afraid he would think I was, like, playing in the toilet when he heard water swishing around. [...] Then we had breakfast in Santa Monica, and I spit egg inside of his mouth when I was talking. Like, it went in. Into his mouth.”

In characters, I LOVE people who take themselves too seriously. Case in point: Rex Manning, from Empire Records. Best quote by far (with accompanying hand gestures) is: “Why don’t you all just… fade away.”

1. Intelligence.
In Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is the Ultimate Victim. Framed for the murder of his adulterous wife, he spends the majority of the movie in prison, where his naked intelligence is so admirable I almost despise it.

What do you like in real people, or in characters?

10 mini-rewards to turn around your afternoon

In comparison to a typical office-setting workday, in-person teaching at the university level might not be as time-consuming, but that doesn’t make it an easy feat. Professors have to be “on” for 50, 75, or even 150 minutes straight. I remember hearing a statistic while in college that the average student stops paying attention every eight minutes, and I tried to implement that concept within my lectures. So, every eight minutes or so, I’d make sure to change the subject, insert a joke, throw a piece of chalk, stand up… and so on. I actually had a timer on my phone to remind me of this at first.

Image taken by Lynn Kelley Author via WANA Commons

Image taken by Lynn Kelley Author via WANA Commons

Similarly, attention spans in any kind of work — writing, office, student papers, among others — aren’t going to be constant.

My system to combat my wandering attention span (I’m hungry. What can I Google? I want a new dress. What dress should I wear to so-and-so’s wedding? Maybe I should book a vacation.) is basically akin to any reward system.

I hate pets, which makes me cold hearted and disliked, I know. I love my mom’s dog, Seamus, which makes me confusing and contradictory. When he was a puppy, I trained him to shake paws, stay, sit, dance, and give high fives before I moved out. When I started working from home, I trained myself the same way. I give a great high five.

The early years.

The early years.

When I A) have no idea what comes next in a story or novel I’m writing or B) feel my attention span lacking, I do one of the following. I come back refreshed, energized, and sometimes with a new idea that I’m excited to work on. The key, during these breaks, is to ONLY focus on the activity at hand.

So, without further ado, here are:

10 Ten-Minute Breaks to Turn Around Your Afternoon

10. Go get the mail.
The change of focus, including the walk out to fresh air, can turn my afternoon around. And then, throwing away the pile of opened letters is entirely satisfying.
9. Make a cup of tea (or coffee).
Or seven. Whatever works. Bonus: Don’t go back to work while it’s brewing. Stand there, stretch, and relax your brain.
8. Organize something.
Desk. Laundry. E-mail inbox. Set a 10-minute alarm, and organize your sock drawer.
7. Plan dinner.
And your grocery list, because being caught without an ingredient is the worst.
6. Open a separate browser window, and read an article for pure entertainment.
Just make sure to keep track of your time, and force yourself not to click away from it or go further. The most important part of this one is definitely the separate browser window.
5. Read.
A chapter, or a set number of pages, in a book… something to take you away from what you’re working on.
4. Get a snack.
An apple, almonds, square of cheese, yogurt – stick to healthy, or else you’ll be Googling fitness blogs in your spare time.
3. Write an e-mail to someone who you admire.
This one paid off for me. Plus, you’ll feel a sense of paying it forward.
2. Take a walk.
Last year, Boston basically had no winter, so I could walk once around the block no problem. I’ve resorted to pacing the apartment (and climbing up and down the stairs for 10 minutes) this year, but I came up with a new novel idea yesterday (!) so that’s a bonus.
1. Sleep.
I am far too anxiety-driven to nap, but some people find that power napping 15-30 minutes can increase their productivity in droves.

With that being said, I’m off to take a 10-minute hot shower before I spend the next three or four hours writing. What refreshes your day?

on dreams and book blurbs

This weekend, I woke up after having a very strange dream. I was in a store on Newbury Street talking to the Jonas Brothers’ manager, who was female but looked exactly like a Jonas brother, and she forged their signatures on a pillowcase for me. She said she does it all the time, and told me to go sell it to “the crowd” that was waiting outside the building, and sure enough they were there. (I attribute this dream to an article about how the oldest Jonas Bro is allegedly doing drugs, and some other stuff that will damage his celebrity.)

By Christopher Simon from Pasadena CA, USA (Jonas Brothers)  via Wikimedia Commons

By Christopher Simon from Pasadena CA, USA (Jonas Brothers) via Wikimedia Commons

At around 4 a.m. last night, my husband began thrashing, and subsequently screaming in his sleep. “No! No! Oh my god! Get away from me! Stop, stop, please stop!” I reached over, and shook him awake… as I’ve done probably a total of three hundred times in the last eight years, at least half of which occur on Sunday nights. (He has given me permission to share his proclivity for night terrors; I am not a terrible wife.) I always ask him what it was about. If you’re intrigued, this one involved someone suddenly grabbing his ankle and dragging him beneath “a surface.” (Other culprits: snakes, action movie shootout dreams, and raccoons.)

Image by Bastique via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Bastique via Wikimedia Commons

One time, I had a dream that I read a whole book (that I invented). Another time, I reversed this dream by writing a full novel. Three weeks before my dad died, I had a dream that he died – I sat up in bed, woke up my now-husband, and told him that my dad was going to die soon. I don’t know what to make of this, so I usually ignore it and/or pretend it didn’t happen. I know writers who keep a dream journal by their bed – I think that this is smart, and should probably be something that I consider doing. This morning, after a particularly vivid dream, I closed my eyes, wrote a full short story, and then got up and did just that. I’ll put it away for six weeks or so and then revisit it; I’ll end up either chucking or revising. Either way, it was a great exercise.

So, as soon as I booted up my computer, I asked two of my best friends what their weirdest dream ever was. (These two people were both “green” on gchat, so they were the easiest ones to reach.) What’s great about them is that they didn’t even ask why; they just immediately shared.

One friend – we will call her Louise –  had a dream that her dad was killing people. She figured it out and wasn’t sure if she should report him.

What if you turned this into a book blurb (also called a jacket summary, or a book synopsis – it’s the writing on the back of a paperback, or on the inside of a hardcover)? This one is particularly funny, because her dad is a junior high science teacher.

“When people in her sleepy town begin dying, fifteen-year-old Louise is just as scared as everyone else… until she figures out who the killer is: her father. Funny, charming, and smart, Mr. Ridge is every student’s dream science teacher. Could he instead be the town’s worst nightmare? How do you love someone who might be evil? And, most importantly: can a daughter turn in her father to the police?”

And now, it’s a young adult mystery book blurb.

Science Teacher Serial Killer

Had way too much fun with this one.

Another friend – we’ll call her Marie – said: “A few weeks ago, I had a bad dream about me starring in a horror movie with Jamie Lee Curtis. But in the dream, I knew what was going to happen because I had seen the movie before, but then all of a sudden, we were in a scene that I didn’t recognize and the killer was about to murder me. Then I woke up.”

By Josh Hallett at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/ → http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/4700190029/  via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Hallett at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/ → http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/4700190029/ via Wikimedia Commons

This movie-within-a-dream trick isn’t new (Inception, anyone?). In fact, it’s fodder for a pretty good fantasy dystopia.

 In a world where… (kidding.)

“Marie has had a pretty normal life, until one morning, when she wakes up – or doesn’t. She’s become trapped in a dream world, where she knows what’s about to happen… and she doesn’t like it. Marie fears she’ll never get back to reality. The only thing that can get her out? A drastic, dangerous plan that relies on the help of a mysterious stranger named Jamie. Can they succeed?”

Sure, they’re not the best written or most intriguing book blurbs around, but they’re fun to use as practice. What about you? What’s the strangest dream you’ve ever had? Do you ever use it in your writing? (Stay tuned for a writing exercise about this coming up in a few short weeks!)

journal secrets

My family used to have a great-aunt Helen, who was – and is – a sort of legend. She died when she was 102, never married, swore, was an incredible racist, drove from Albany to Boston on the regular until she was 98, drank straight scotch, and travelled all over the world. It came as no surprise when we cleaned out her home (that she hadn’t been in for seven years) that we found all sorts of gems – like grocery receipts, still in the drawer since 1941.

She also kept track of her travels in mini-diaries – there are about two dozen of these things. I have one of them.

Helen's First Travel Journal

This one kicks off just days after she turned 29, aboard her first cruise. 

The Cruise ship

The SS Munargo ship: Helen’s first entry

Upon further research, the S.S. Munargo later become a WWII-era hospital ship named Thistle, and was soon “scrapped” after the war. This is interesting, because the love of Helen’s life (who sent her boxes of love letters, all of which she kept) returned from the war as an insane man.

So now, while we’re in the middle of moving, I’ve come across all of MY old diaries and journals. They are hilarious, über-revealing, and embarrassing. I also have all of my old junior high notes, so if you ever sent me one, I’m lookin’ at you.

My first one is that unlocked ballet diary; the most recent, the purple one beneath all the others.

My first one is that unlocked ballet diary; the most recent, the purple one beneath all the others.

Memory gold.

Memory gold.

I apparently began journaling at age 8, as you can see below.

Just turned 8. Jen and I were already hounding you then, brother.

Just turned 8. Jen and I were already hounding you then, brother.

I have no idea how I’ve kept all of these. Spoiler alert: they actually have been in a sealed bag underneath our bed for the last 4 years. I’ve re-hidden them, though, so don’t go snooping like I apparently did way back in ’93.

Someday, I hope to assemble all of Helen’s diaries, and create either a biography or a fictional story about her. I use my own to jog my memory of being a kid. What about you? Did you keep a diary when you were younger? Apparently, even then, I was already a writer.