Writer Exercises: How Working Out Improves Your Writing

You’ve been at your desk since 9AM. The coffee’s gone cold, and the sparkle of inspiration that got you a thousand words on your WIP has become more of a sputter. You’re tired. You’re frustrated. That itch creeps up: “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

My best trick to beat that feeling? Get moving.

Go for a walk. Do some yoga. Go do your exercise of choice and let your creative side exhale. Devoting yourself to a non-writing related task for at least thirty minutes will help rid you of the negative “I-suck-at-this” feeling that comes with writer’s block.

For me, nothing is as potent as a good run. It gets me mentally and physically away from my desk, and with that distance comes clarity of how to move forward in my writing.

Exercise also helps you critique your own work. If you character goes through any sort of physical test in the course of your novel, it’s your responsibility as a writer to accurately convey how that feels. Is your protagonist running for his life? Lace up your sneakers and sprint for 30 seconds. What muscles are working? How do your lungs feel? Where on your body are you sweating? Little details are what give writing life.

Go one step further: it feasible for your character to sprint for minutes at a time? Katniss wouldn’t have lasted long if she worked a desk job and her fridge was full of pizza and beer. Be realistic about what your character can do physically.

The workout-then-write approach works for any genre. Writing about mermaids? Go for a swim. What does it sound like underwater? How does your hair move as you kick forward? If your story is set in a desert, take a few minutes and stand in the midday sun. Look around you. Does it hurt to keep squinting? Would your character have the luxury of sunscreen, or would they burn? Is there any wind to provide relief?

You want your writing to be an immersive experience for your readers, and that begins with immersive experiences.

Be an active writer. It’s good for your mind, good for your heart, and great for your novel.

-S.P.

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‘Round the Nautilus: April 2016

Welcome to the first in a new blog series, ‘Round the Nautilus!

This monthly series is aimed at helping writers-who-are-readers set the spotlight on the most interesting book they read that month.

Note that I didn’t say books they liked best. This series is for books you can’t shut up about, good or bad. That may mean a new favorite novel, but it also may mean a bestseller that was a bit of a letdown. As long as blurbs are respectfully and tastefully written, they are more than welcome.

So without further ado, here is April 2016’s ‘Round the Nautilus:

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Astonish Me
By Maggie Shipstead

9780307962904

A novel as sinewy in strength as its ballet dancers’ muscles. Shipstead tells a story of longing with a melancholic echo that rings for days in the heart. As a writer, the story of dashed hope and undying ambition rings painfully true as Shipstead’s protagonist comes to terms with her faults and failures.

—Amy Thomas
@aktommy26

 

 

 

A Thousand Pieces of You
By Claudia Gray
17234658

Gray throws her readers into the plot, expertly supplementing en media res action with enough backstory to keep the reader from wandering. Each character, from the two protagonists down to the smallest sidekick, are so well-rendered that by the end I would have recognized them on the street. Gorgeous world building and sharp pacing: this book is a marvel.

—Shannon Price
@spricewrites

If you are interested in joining ‘Round the Nautilus for May 2016, please send me a DM and I’ll be happy to fill you in on dates and details. All are welcome!

Photo Credits:
Astonish Me
– washingtonpost.com

Thousand Pieces of You – goodreads.com

 

 

 

AWP 2016 Recap

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Last weekend I (and 11,999 of my closest literary friends) went to Los Angeles for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, aka AWP.

LA is not my favorite city to say the least – the sky outside the plane’s window got visibly darker as we descended into smog (ick).  Still, the location gave me a chance to wear some outfits that would have given me frostbite at last year in Minneapolis. As for the conference itself: that gave me much, much more.

 

Bookfair

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For AWP 2015, I was part of a group of students representing the Santa Clara Review, Santa Clara University’s literary magazine.

This year, my time was split: I was there first and foremost for myself. As a writer polishing her third MS, my priority was attending panels to help sharpen my skills. Beyond that I wanted to attend talks about trends in publishing, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and (of course) how to secure representation.

The rest of my time was spent helping represent Counterpoint Press, where I currently work as an intern. It was exciting to see our titles – some of which I’d helped proofread or publicize – all lined up and ready to go.  Working the booth also meant I got to socialize with co-workers out of the office and meet some new ones (looking at you, Dan Smetanka.).

I also got to meet some of Counterpoint’s authors – John Jodzio, Tod Goldberg, and Brett Fletcher Lauer, to name a few. After seeing their names printed on galleys and press releases, it was surreal to shake the writers’ hands and tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

Panels

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Last year’s panels did not blow me away. No matter the subject, panelists had a tendency to talk about themselves…and only themselves. I have a distinct memory of nodding off during a magical realism panel while my friend, already asleep, drooled on my shoulder. Turns out even magical realism can be made dull.

So for AWP16, I hedged my bets- and it worked. I went to twice as many panels and judged them using a very offical smiley face rating system.

The verdict: one frowny face, two “so-so” faces, and five big smiles.

The most instructive panel was title Treating Your Setting Like A Character. The panelists – Elizabeth Briggs, Jessica Love, Kathryn Rose, and Rachel Searles – divided up the sections of how they treat character and offered a stellar mix of personal anecdotes, recommendations for books that use setting intelligently, and useful questions a writer can ask themselves when developing setting. The result? A perfect panel that left me energized and inspired.

A Touch of Kismet

My AWP highlight came on Saturday morning (and pinch me here, because I’m still reeling that this actually happened), the last morning of the conference. While en route to a panel, I shared a taxi with a young woman who turned out to be Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management.

I write YA. She reps YA. We discovered this connection immediately, at which point Erin smiled introduced me to my new favorite word: kismet.

We got to talking, and I pitched her my books. She asked me about my writing background and my internship at Counterpoint. We joked about the strange vastness that is LA. When we parted ways – coincidentally, Erin was on the panel I was attending – I thanked her and promised to send my MS when it was ready.

Note: Thank you, Erin, for your kind words and listening ear. I throughly enjoyed meeting you; look for my query in the coming months!

Closing Thoughts

IMG_1750My experiences at AWP15 and AWP16 were radically different. I’ve grown as a person and a writer since Minneapolis, and it showed. This year I knew to bring business cards, ask better questions, and to take advantage of each aspect of the conference. In short, this year I felt like I belonged.

Attending a conference like AWP isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. My sleep schedule went out the window. My eating schedule went freely with it.

But in the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not the three days of living off coffee and free chocolate. Not the tired feet, or the dent in my bank account, or eating concessions on the bookfair floor (see left).

None of that matters because of the people I did it all with. I reconnected with former college professors, talked to alumni, and met dozens of publishing professionals who are just as in love with writing as I am. I learned about myself as a person, as a writer, and as a part of the writing community – all in the span of four days.

So thank you, AWP, for another staggeringly amazing time. As I said to my friends when we left the bookfair on Saturday evening: “Next year in Washington”.

-SP

Pain & Process

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing is damn hard.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing.

Many a well-meaning friend and family member equate writing to sitting at home in your pajamas all day.

“You looked relaxed,” they tell me.

Admittedly, I do look relaxed – but rest assured, I am not.

“There is no agony  like bearing an untold story inside you.” That is a real, non-paraphrased quote from Zora Neale Hurston. I first saw it in a Oprah magazine. I ripped out the page and tacked that sucker to my wall. I’m looking at it now.

Agony is a strong word and a fitting one. Whether in a first draft or fifth, writing is physically painful process. For me, it feels like an ache at the center of my chest. That ache goes away when I type a new scene, strengthen a line of dialogue, or delete a chunk of text in favor of a better one.

Writing is also emotionally painful. Of course it is! Writing means putting your mind, ideas, and (yes) heart onto a page for other people to read. WITH THEIR EYES. I mean, who does that?

Writers, that’s who.

As of right now, December 14, 2015, my most painful writing experience has been creating the draft I am working on now. The 75+ rejections I’ve received to date pale in comparison to the agony of this particular story untold.

Does this mean this manuscript, when finished, will be my best? I don’t know. Does it guarantee it’ll be published? Of course not.

But Hurston didn’t say “book unread” or “manuscript unpublished”. She said “story.” And that’s just it – this story which I love has been in my head, tossing and turning for years, is finally getting it out. Any way you slice it, creating this draft is a personal endeavor – but one that I don’t mind grappling with.

Why? Because I’m a writer. Pain – emotional, physically, or otherwise – is part of the game. And I love, love, love it. Even when I hate it, I love it. 

Writers will tell you their work is hard. Believe them. They  will tell you they love what they do. Believe that, too.
-S.P.

 

Great British (Writing) Show

The_Great_British_Bake_Off_title
Source: Wikipedia

 

Like much of the world, I am hooked on The Great British Bake Off. It’s a refreshingly civil competition, and one that champions creativity, consistency, and dedication to the craft.

With each episode I watch, I spot and more more parallels between the writing/publishing process and baking. Grab a crumpet and a spot of tea, and let’s compare:

1.) Waiting is the hardest part.

At some point in each episode, the contestants do, in fact, have to wait for their creations bake. Some wring their hands on their aprons. Others pace around the famed tent. In one episode, a contestant looked at the camera and said, “I hate the waiting. I absolutely hate it.”

If you take a look at my recent Tweets, you’ll see how much I sympathize with this statement. Querying is a waiting game. No amount of refreshing your inbox will make agents respond any faster, just as no amount of staring into the oven will make that plaited loaf rise any sooner than it’s ready.

2.) The judges are allowed to be particular.

It’s sometimes hard to watch Paul and Mary (GBBO’s pair of judges) point out flaws in a contestant’s creation. They nit pick each bite and are almost ruthless in that regard.

Still, it’s important to realize that they’re allowed to be picky. They know the craft and understand just how a croissant should flake, whether the dough was kneaded correctly, or whether the flavors “work” or not.

Agents are the same way. They know the trends and what can sell. They know what succeeds in a sample and what doesn’t. Often they have to reject work that is perfectly fine, because perfectly fine isn’t good enough.

Agents are looking for nothing short of a showstopper.

3.) Writing needs a good bake throughout.

By episode 3 or so, viewers of GBBO pick on the judges’ jargon. One phrase that crops up again and again is a “good bake”, meaning the contestants’ creations must be evenly and thoroughly cooked in order to impress.

Agents, too, need a good bake throughout. You can’t have a piece of writing look crispy and golden on the outside (strong query, good sample) and have it sink towards the middle or be raw at the bottom.

Plot, setting, and characters are the ingredients of writing. Not only must they blend together, but the execution must be flawless as well. Taking the extra time to “prove” your creation with line edits or re-writes will help ensure a good bake throughout. Agents will be hooked by your query and treated to a work that is consistently excellent.

They’ll be stuffing their pockets with your pages and asking for more.
–S.P.