Tuesday, October 25, 2016


post by Lynn

Waaay up in Antarctica, where winds can gust up to 100 mph, Emperor penguins have a unique way of staying warm: they huddle.

Hundreds of those guys and gals in their snazzy tuxedos get together in order to survive the 60-degrees-below-(Farenheit) temps. Deep in the huddle, the temperature can get up to a balmy 70 degrees F.

But here’s the great thing, in my opinion: the warm spot in the center is equally shared. 

Every penguin gets a turn in the middle, and each one spends time at the frosty perimeter. There’s no hierarchy, researchers say--no deal where an Alpha penguin sits cozy while his minion penguins freeze their tails off at the edge.

I’ve recently had the unique-to-me experience of being stopped cold in my writing tracks. Unable to write anything.  It happens, I know, or at least I’ve been told. But it’s never happened to me in such a complete way. 

And the heartwarming thing is that my writing buddies, family and friends have made like penguins—they have huddled around me and pushed me to the middle and shielded me from the cold. 

Soon, I’m sure, I’ll warm up enough to move outward and offer the toasty spot to one of them. I’ll take my turn and face the wind.

But for now, I’ll just soak up the heat and be grateful—so grateful—that I have all these warm bodies around me. 

I can only hope that you have a huddle too. Because the wind is going to blow, whether we want it to or not. On occasion the writing will freeze up. 

Thank you, all my penguin people, for being in my huddle. Couldn’t make it without you.

And for some comic relief (who couldn’t use THAT these days?) check out this video in which Benedict Cumberbatch is called to correct his odd pronunciation of the word “penguin.” (Move ahead to 3:28 for the bit about penguins.) 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Writing Prompt: Random Maps

by Susan

I like something both physical and random in writing prompts. This one has a little of both.

In the West, place is itself a character: one that appears to suffer from bipolar disorder, weather-wise. But anywhere you set your story, a good sense of place informs both characters and plot and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story.

 In Writing Fiction Step by Step, Josip Novakovich (gesundheit) writes:

"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."

So let's go on a blind date with a place and see what happens, shall we?

Maps place prompt

Start with a stack of road maps from different states. Everyone picks one randomly. Switch out if you get a place familiar to you. Open the maps and quickly pick a place. Go by instinct, not by reason. Don't think about it too much.

Now that you have your place, here are some options. Write about a character or from the perspective of a character:
  • Who lives there, loves it and can't imagine living anywhere else.
  • Who lives there, hates it, and can't imagine why they stay.
  • Whose car broke down there.
  • Who always dreamed of living there and finally moved there.
  • Who grew up there and is coming back to visit friends or family after a long time away.
  • Who is seeing this place for the first time.
Use the map for clues -- how big is it? What places is it near? Often, road maps given out for free will have more information -- are there any festivals listed for that place? Is there a population given?  Now fill in the blanks. What is Main Street like? The neighborhoods? What kind of industry (or lack of) is dominant.

Give it about 15-20 minutes on this one and see what happens!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Post by Lynn

A fat, black fly, slowed by cool weather, bangs against the window pane in my writing room. He can see where he wants to go—to the still-green grass outside—but he can’t reach it the way he thinks he ought to be able to reach it. He’s centimeters away from freedom, but he can’t get there.

I can relate.

In my writing, I often see the story, just right there, through the mist of my imagination. And yet I bang against the words on the page, hit delete, bang again and again.

In order to break through to the lushness I envision, I’m finding out I have to redirect. Unlike the unfortunate fly, I can do that. I can make choices, experiment and not just bang away until I die. Phew! 

My favorite tool in this case is to turn another direction and let time pass.

I step away from that particular piece of writing and redirect my energy to something that proves to be more permeable in the moment.

I leave my computer and write by hand, something that research has shown causes you to access different parts of your brain.

If I can’t dredge up enough dialogue to flesh out the scene I’m working on, I pivot and go where the energy is flowing—maybe to a lyric essay, because the Muse has been handing me some imagery in my sleep.

Or sometimes I have to keep studying, reading, responding to writing prompts until my abilities move up to the level of the story and I learn the exact thing I need in order to write the next words.

My redirection is rewarded when the window to the world I was banging away at opens just enough to let me slip through.

“Go with the flow” sounds New Agey, and some would say I’m stalling, but it’s my creative process and I’m sticking to it. I end up less frustrated and more productive in the long run.

What about your writing process? Do you redirect, go straight for it, or something else?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Avoiding "Writing by Committee"

by Susan

One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's old blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:

 Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

I often came back from critique sessions with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!