Writing Challenge, Day 30: Reflections

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 30: What will you take away from this challenge?

This challenge has been a fantastic exercise in discipline. It’s helped me treat writing like a job: something I must show up for each day and see through, regardless of how energetic (lethargic), creative (stodgy), and enthusiastic (dead to the world) I am feeling.

Needless to say some entries turned out better than others, but in a world where deadlines and chip-away progress are very real and standard I come away with a sense of accomplishment at having simply completed them all. The progress and especially the unanticipated inspiration storms that result from butt-in-the-chair dedication are empowering, to say the least. If only I could apply the same tactics to writing my first book—incremental goals and regular deadlines, that is—I think it would go from dream to reality much faster.

One unexpected spoil I take from this challenge is an increased sense of writing community both online and off. I admit I often fall on the side of cynicism when it comes to social media, and yet—among all of the pontificating, photo-posting, status updates, and other time-suck frivolities—we get these rare gems like Writer’s Relief and WordPress actually, successfully used as platforms to facilitate exchange. Each day I enjoyed reading and relating with comments left by other writers in response to the facebook prompts put out by Writer’s Relief, and each day I was met by a flurry of likes and comments on WordPress after posting my extended responses. I really feel that, thanks to the challenge, I have been able to reach and connect with writers I might otherwise have never encountered.

Thirty days of consecutive posts have also, I should mention, done wonders for my readership 😀 They are modest milestones for my sapling blog, but since undertaking this 30 day challenge The Read Room has passed both 1,000 page views and 50 followers. Huzzah!

Oh, and did I mention I had fun??? I submit some of my favorite entries as evidence:

12 Reasons to Read Julie Israel. You’re Welcome. Here I get into one of my favorite writing forms—lists—and save polar bears as well as school children.

Good Idea, Bad Idea In which I play off the old Animaniacs’ game with a ridicu-list of Dos and Don’ts for facilitating productive writing.

Ghosts, Superhorses, and Sock Monsters The question for this prompt was “What did you write (when you first started writing)?”

Enter Peter McBunterbeans In this entry on my strongest genre (playful/humor) I include an excerpt from a recent short story. Check it out! 😀

Of Swords & Excuses In which I relate a humorous, but unfortunately very true, agenda of reasons for evading the hard work of sitting in the chair and making a start.

Revision, or: Hell & Hot Pockets Tell me you are not intrigued by this title. Um, it’s basically a ranting freewrite about all the things that go wrong in my revision “process”. Also know as Murphy’s Law.

Some of my less playful, but more informative entries:

Stealing Inspiration (#lifehacks) Why every artist should steal.

Fables & Folklore In which I babble excitedly about fables, folklore, and fairy tales as well as why, even as adults, we should read them. P.S. Magical Realism! Woooo!

The Myth of the Muse This post is on inspiration, imagination, and how to brainstorm and generally be a genius.

Of course I welcome reader feedback, too. For those of you who followed, joined, or simply stumbled helpless and unsuspectingly onto one of my 30-day posts, please feel free to enter questions, comments, and interpretive dance moves.

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Writing Challenge, Day 29: Good Idea, Bad Idea

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 29: What do you do while you write? Do you listen to music, watch TV, eat snacks, etc.?

This is a dangerous question. Paraphrased it might read “With what sparkly trivialities do you busy yourself whilst pretending to write?”

I like to think I can multi-task, but hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me may—

Wait, what were we talking about?

Oh yeah. “Doing while writing.” It can be done, but must be done with care—namely, in a way that ensures creativity and productivity rather than detour, distraction, and bouncing about (the room) (the house) (the internet) like a feral kid in a candy store. Does anyone remember the 90s and that Warner Brothers cartoon “Animaniacs”? They had this great little segment called “Good Idea, Bad Idea”. Here’s a refresher:

Now then, I’m going to play myself a jaunty round of Good Idea, Bad Idea as relates to writing conditions.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: While You Write Edition

Good Idea: Putting on an ambient, chill, or instrumental playlist.

Bad Idea: Pumping up the danceable jams with LMFAO, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, or anything you’re ashamed to admit you know all the words to: Ke$ha, Glee, Backstreet Boys, High School Musical, the soundtrack to Lion King…

Good Idea: Listening to music with a mood or tone similar to what you need for your piece.

Bad Idea: Listening to your favorite comedians crack jokes about Hot Pockets, toilet books, and Sir Mittington Romney.

Good Idea: Preparing a snack before writing.

Bad Idea: Stumbling onto Punchfork, finding six or seven new recipes to try, saving them to your computer, spending ten minutes debating which one to try first and then moving your laptop to the kitchen so you can bake blackberry-peach cobbler and write.

Good Idea: Getting up to stretch and walk at regular intervals.

Bad Idea: Getting up to do the laundry, tend the garden, meet a friend, see a movie, or hit the pub at regular intervals.

Good Idea: Looking up synonyms and new words.

Bad Idea: Looking up the latest Facebook updates, epic fails, and LOLcatz.

Writing Challenge, Day 28: Stealing Inspiration

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 28: When you write, to what degree do real-life experiences serve as inspiration?

So, my favorite writing teacher ever taught our English class an important lesson on the first very day. She said, to a room of eager, innocent young faces:

“Boys and girls, if you want to be a writer, you must learn to steal.”

The class reacted thus:

“WHAAAAA?”

She went on to explain herself: as artists, we run into the inevitable problem of everything under the sun having already been done before. Yes, even the sentiment that it’s all been done is a hackneyed old cushion that’s lost its whoopee. The solution then, as this wise teacher relayed, is to steal.

“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” –Oscar Wilde

(The more I learn of Wilde, the more I love him.)

This is not to suggest plagiarism. As a writer, artist, or any other creative type one should never plagiarize. However, when we encounter something that is compelling, it is our writerly duty to capitalize upon it. Sometimes that thing is a plot. Sometimes a rhyme scheme. Sometimes an amalgamation of ideas, characters, and distasteful cultural trends. Then, when we have seized the object(s) of our affections, we must make it (them) our own. Some examples:

1. “Green Eggs & Hamlet” is a delightfully witty poem which combines the stolen soliloquy of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most famous “To be or not to be” scene) and a rhyme scheme purloined of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

2. 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern (1999) film adaptation of Shakespeare’s rom-com play, The Taming of the Shrew. The film filches Shrew’s plot as well as its driving characters, remodeling them and most of their dialogue to fit the rockin’ sockin’ nineties. The poem that Julia Stiles reads, for which the film is named, also seems to be a spin off of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem Sonnet XLIII which begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

3. Vampires Suck is the god-awful result of combining all three of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books into a single cinema feature in a two-hour attempt at comedic parody. Characters are given slapstick makeovers (Bella Swan becomes Becca Crane; the Cullens become the Sullens; etc.) and there are references to pop culture icons such as the Kardashians, Buffy, and Lady Gaga that no one born after the year 2000 will give three beans about.

Says The All-Knowing Wiki: “Vampires Suck was given four nominations from the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay and Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel.”

All examples considered, some thieving endeavors turn out better than others.

But stealing from something already written (said, done, painted, filmed, etc.) is only one part of the equation. Stealing from real-life is the other. I keep running lists of anything that I think will feed good writing: textured words, visceral images, character flaws, social phenomenon, and things that make me laugh, cry, drop my jaw, or want to write an angry, angry letter.

I challenge you, in the next few days, to be aware of the things and moments that strike you. When you are amused, or disgusted, or elated, defeated, or furious, write about it.

Your friends have weird habits? WRITE THEM DOWN.

There’s that oooone awkward coworker who doesn’t understand what’s socially appropriate and makes everyone in the elevator uncomfortable each morning with his ludicrously offensive remarks? WRITE THEM DOWN.

Your HTC phone is a malfunctioning piece of shite that, in the moment your two-year contract is up, you will personally place in the middle of the street and back over in a Jeep before hailing a stampede of elephants to trample its faulty remains? WRITE ABOUT IT (I suggest an angry letter).

Used effectively, real-life details are the perfect creative fodder. They not only inform our work with an automatic sense of authenticity, but make our writing something readers can relate to.

Writing Challenge, Day 27: Panning for Gold

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 27: When was the last time you wrote something you didn’t expect to write?

Wouldn’t you know it, the last time I sat down with a clear direction and went on an absolute tangent was only five days ago in answering the prompt for Day 22: “Why should someone read your work?” What resulted was a creative ridicu-list of a dozen fictional reasons to read Julie Israel. They may or may not have included healing all the world’s ills and evolving superpowers… 🙂

But one thing I am learning in my journey to overcome write-as-I-go perfectionism is that, when you sit down and just keep your pen to paper (or fingers to the keys), some of the drivel that comes out will actually be halfway decent. Incredibly, sometimes in that bumbling hodgepodge of thoughts and obscurity there’s an idea or detail that dazzles like a rare coin or gem. You can pan for gold in a freewrite!

Point is, writers are always writing something they didn’t expect to. But it is only when we let go of the need to express ourselves in one fell and flawless swoop—when we aren’t overthinking things—that our writing can surprise us. So the next time you’re stuck, try the classic freewrite bit: trust the reigns to your hands instead of your head. Forge on for ten, even five minutes without stopping to think or lift your tool from the paper; when it’s over, stand back and prepare to be amazed.

Writing Challenge, Day 25: Starting the Fire

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 25: What makes you want to write more?

I find there are a few things that stoke the creative fire:

  1. Real-world inspiration. Reading about people like Amanda Hocking with wild success stories is immensely encouraging. Hocking had tried for years to get her books accepted by publishing houses but they all kept turning her down. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to raise $300 so she could travel to see a Muppets exhibition in Chicago six months down the road, she self-published a book on Amazon. By the end of the six months she had made $20,000. Now, with a faithful and growing audience of readers, she has made millions selling subsequent publications. How can you NOT want to write after hearing stories like that?
  1. Talking story. You know how when you tell your friends “I’m writing a book” there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to ask (unless you are Chris Moyles*) what it’s about? Yeah. Well, when that happens and suddenly you have to explain yourself, it throws a lot of things into perspective reeeaaally fast. You don’t want to sound like an idiot, so you paint your story-in-progress as best as you can—sometimes amending plot holes and trimming excess along the way!

Of course, even if your novel doesn’t magically sort itself out under the pressure of describing it on demand (which is, I find, more often the case) the process of drawing a quick outline is an illuminating one. You realize what characters or details need attention as well as where the story needs development and change. The fire to improve can be a compelling one.

Telling a friend about your work is never more encouraging than when he or she is excited about it—then you know you have something. It’s the perfect motivation for putting your butt in the chair!

  1. Shower epiphanies. I do my best thinking away from the screen. This might be on a run, sipping an iced tea on the deck, or in the shower. I’ve talked about this before, but there is a lot of power in letting your subconscious connect the dots as it jumps from place to place. It just needs the time and space in which to do it. I tell you, there is NO better motivation to write than having a kickass idea when there’s no computer at your fingertips!!!

*See what happens if you ARE Chris Moyles and announce you are writing a book. Reaction starts at 1:40.

Writing Challenge, Day 23: Shoot For the Moon

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 23: If you held all the cards, where would you want your writing to take you?

Short answer: Europe!

Slightly longer short answer: As early as third grade I dreamed of writing best-sellers. I suppose, if we’re talking ALL the cards, I won’t give up on that dream. But ultimately I don’t need fame or fortune. I would be happy just to live comfortably doing what I love, and have the resources to follow my other dreams like world travel and living abroad.

Alright. If we’re really going to play the “ALL the cards” game, I think a list is the best way to go.

Julie’s Quick List of Writing Goals & Dreams

  1. Be able to afford a comfortable, debt-free life
  2. …abroad…
  3. …as well as travel
  4. Get published by a respected publishing house
  5. Make the NYT bestseller list
  6. Appear on The Daily Show and / or The Colbert Report to discuss my future best-selling books with idols Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
  7. Attend a book-signing in which I am the author
  8. See my book(s) discussed on television, in high schools and universities, debated by scholars
  9. Make a lasting contribution to culture, the arts, and humanity

If you’re going to dream, dream big.

But even if you fall miserably short of your goals, have a laugh. Failure is often the first step to success.

Ask not what your readers can do for you…

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 21: How do YOU hope to help your fellow writers–now or in the future?

I know that one thing I really value as a writer is a partner-in-crime (reader) who will devote the time and care to sitting down with my work, reading it, and providing honest critical feedback. (A quick shout out to friend and fellow writer KD Shaw, who has graciously accepted it upon herself to slog through an 18-page first draft which I’ve just completed today and can no longer stand to look at! You rock, KD!)

It may be small potatoes, but I think being a critical reader is one of the greatest services I can offer my fellow writers today. What I wouldn’t give for a functioning writer’s circle! Maybe it’s time to revive the old group that used to meet Wednesdays (but then usually ended up going out for Mexican or drinks and swapping gossip rather than reading or writing…)

The other thing I am finding as I struggle to gain footing in the literary world is that every little bit of support helps. I am surprised again and again at the level of encouragement and community that forms in the blogging world—I honestly never could have anticipated it! Likes, comments, and follows all point, however small, to the fact that someone is reading. That in itself is a small miracle.

In that vein, the other way I think I can make a difference for writers at present is simply to return the favor and show active support for them. And in that spirit, today I want to give a big, glittering slice of kudos-pie to Emily Anne Shaffer, who earlier this week self-published her first novel, That Time of the Month. Congratulations, Emily!

As to the future…would it be vain to hope that my writing itself one day fires the writing ambitions of others? 🙂

Revision, Or: Hell & Hot Pockets

Warning: I use an uncharacteristic amount of expletives in this post. I guess I feel quite strongly about revision.

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge, Day 19: Describe your revision process.

Haaaahahaha…“process”. That implies organization.

My revisioning is rather haphazard, actually. It’s kind of like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, and then throwing firecrackers and Hot Pockets at it. You still get a Hot Pocket out of the deal, but that by no means guarantees satisfaction. In fact, it’s more likely to do the opposite.

Here’s how my revision typically goes down:

I start writing something.

I labor over the first few sentences; with any luck I have a few paragraphs down before the self-editing starts.

A sentence from the first paragraph spontaneously combusts.

I rush to the scene to quell the offending flame. But before I have the first offense under tabs another six spring up.

I turn my attention to the new problems and, just when I think I’ve thrown an adequate amount of water on them, TURNS OUT THEY’RE GREMLINS AND THE BASTARDS MULTIPLY

Then,

THE IN-LAWS ARE VISITING THE TOILET PAPER’S OUT I BOUGHT GRAPEFRUIT INSTEAD OF ORANGES AND I SWEAR I JUST SAW A MALICIOUS CLOWN

It’s cool bro, don’t matter, just keep writing. Even Hemingway said that the first draft of everything is shit. It doesn’t have to be good now, just get some words on the page and fix things later. Whew, okay, I can do this.

A few sentences later:

TARANTULA FUNKEYS IN PARTY HATS

And on it goes, with sentences exploding and whole sections being torched in favor of a new draft, until somehow, miraculously and against all odds, I crawl out of a chapter or short story some weeks later with one shoe, shredded clothing, hairy legs and a week’s supply of Cheetos Puffs wrappers. Oh yes: and in this rare, victorious moment I am clutching a complete first draft. Which is, theoretically, where revisions should actually begin.

*Inhales*

In summation, my revision “process” is a total nightmare and in desperate need of work. I particularly need to get comfortable with writing poorly so that it doesn’t take forever to complete a single draft.

For first-time readers, I’d like you to assure you that I’m actually a very mild-mannered person. My regular posts do not contain gratuitous strands of capital letters, weird swears, Hot Pockets or Cheetos. I don’t even like Hot Pockets. Please don’t run away. Watch the funny man rip on Hot Pockets instead.

Writing Challenge, Day 16: Have No Fear

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge by Writer’s Relief

Day 16: As a writer, what are your biggest fears? How can you overcome them?

I don’t know which writing fear is worse: that of not being read, or that of being read, judged, and not liked. It seems contradictory to possess both, but there you are.

They say that with fears, like with bad dreams, the best thing to do is to sit down, run through all of the things that could possibly go wrong, play them out to their very worst scenarios, and then step back and realize either how absurdly unlikely it is those things will ever happen, or how ludicrous they are to fear. So let’s give it a shot.

Fear of not being read, Worst Case Scenario

I’m not read. Nobody knows who I am. I’m just another no-name writer without a distinct style, no recognized works, and no publications but a handful in small magazines that less than .00005% of the world has heard of (or would pay the price of a small pizza to buy). OH WAIT. THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR. That’s how things already are. Nowhere to go but up…!

Worst worst WORST case scenario: I publish a book and no one cares. But there is no logical reason for this to worry me until I’m even ready to publish, which is ages away. And even with a novel—like all my other writing—the fact remains that in cultivating readership I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What is there to fear?

Fear that I WILL be read, judged, and not liked, Worst Case Scenario

I am read. Everyone and their dog judges me. People I went to high school with unfriend me on Facebook, mothers frown at me in the store and herd their children away, and I am banned from several countries on account of offensively poor writing.

In this case, hey: at least I’m being read!

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

—Marilyn Monroe

If people are talking about you—even in the spirit of mockery and ridicule—at least they are talking about you. A notoriously bad book is still notorious, and that means it’s being read. It worked for Fifty Shades of Gray.

With any luck, even if a book is best known for its utter failure to be writing, the fact that it’s known will attract enough readers so that at least one person is statistically bound to like it.

Again, what is there to fear?

Perhaps the simplest solution to all writing-related fears is this (to be read in the voice of Dory from Finding Nemo):

 “Just keep writing, just keep writing, just keep writing!”