Keep Writing

“Keep writing.”
It’s the most common piece of advice that you hear seasoned writers tell the novices. It’s also one of the most important. It’s about not stopping at the moment to check the spelling of a word or to see if you are using it correctly. It’s about keeping the writing flow going and it takes time, effort and repeated practice. The most common method is to start with five or ten minutes. Some writers suggest doing 15-minute chunks. Others will tell you to just keep writing until the thoughts are all on the paper in front of you, (this can lead to a grocery list being thrown into the middle of a creative word vomit) and this is okay too.
It’s not just sitting down with a piece of paper or a keyboard and putting the words down, although it starts that way. Then it’s doing that over and over but with different ideas and objectives. It’s playful and fun and yet can still manage to be hard work. It takes practice and reading the works of others mixed with learning the ropes (and there are lots of writing ropes to learn). It’s creation fueled by inspiration. It’s learning to trust that part of your creative self and learning to be honest with your voice (writing what you mean versus what you think others want to hear).
It’s about writing even when you don’t want to because even with as much as I love it there are days where I just don’t want to. I at least write what has become a sort of diary which I have come to call my “morning dump”. I write these 750 words as fast as I can when I wake up in the morning and use that space to just vent or verbalize anything that I feel needs to be said. I do this for me only. I always feel like I start off the day with a clean slate that way. I use the program 750words.com because I like the feedback it gives at the end of each session as to where my mind is at for the day. I feel it gives me a sense of self-awareness and it gives me the opportunity to redirect my mindset if I am in a negative mood.
Keep writing. It’s how you get better. I don’t always reach my goals for writing every day but my agreement with myself is that if I don’t write like I should, I read instead. I think the combination keeps me balanced and gives me things to chew on when I am not writing. I believe writing reflects back to you ways you can work harder on becoming the best you that you can be and there is nothing wrong with a little self-improvement in the mix. It is an amazing thing to watch a person and their writing grow together (it is also a personally enjoyable thing to do).
Don’t stop writing. I love it when after someone reads something I wrote and they lock eyes with me and tell me this. “Don’t ever stop writing.” To me, writing has become such a strong and stable part of my life that I can’t imagine living without it. My dream is to write for a living and while I am unsure if this dream will ever come true, I know I will write even if I never get published. I will write for the handful of people who have begged me to keep going and for myself, always for myself.
I am not a perfect person and have made plenty of mistakes. The only mistakes I continuously regret are the times when I stopped writing. I regret that wasted time, the words I did not write. When I look back at old stuff I have written I cringe sometimes but often enough I find a glimmer of a phrase or an idea that was good. I also love to see how far I have come over the course of this journey and looking at older works is beneficial.
Fix what you write. I used to be terrified of the editing process. Over the years, there were editors that I met that wowed me. What I didn’t realize was that my limited experience prevented me from being able to edit a piece effectively. I still struggle with this one from time to time. I am more free with putting things down rather than asking myself why or looking deeper. I am learning how important editing is…however … not until the story is written entirely. You can’t edit the first draft until you have the first draft.
Then there is the sharing. Oh, one of the hardest parts. To become so vulnerable as to share these intimate thoughts, ideas or stories. What will people say? Will it be awful? Will they like what I wrote? Do I like what I have written? How can I make it better? What will happen next? That is the question that helps me finish. When I feel the settling that signals the end, I will still try to keep writing. With the help of good readers, I go back in and hope that I can make the story better with the next round of edits.
Keep writing. Then there is the final piece. The submissions or the putting a story to bed. Yikes. Scary stuff. Waiting to see what they will say about my work if anything. Will they like it? Did I send it to the right place for that particular story? Will they publish it or reject it? I try not to worry about what could have been better until I see if I have found it a home first. With the pieces I put to bed, I keep them in a “cuts” folder on my computer for now. Either way, my goal to send my pieces to find their new homes, wherever they may be. This last piece has become as important to me as the entire writing process.
So I keep writing and I don’t stop.

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My Writing Life–Every Word is Worth it

Writing is one of my favorite things and my love of words started at a young age. Not things like poetry, but the language itself. I am still fascinated by the way the words themselves are formed. I am awestruck by the variety of ways words can be transformed into sentences and subsequently into stories. In school, I loved the Dictionary games and deciphering a word’s meaning based on its parts. In one elementary school class, I remember memorizing the prepositions. (Yes all of them, in alphabetical order and I am still able to recite most of them.) I was very proud of myself for these things, these odd abilities.

I got an old desk when I was around 10 years old. I loved that desk and would “set it up” so that I could pretend to be a writer. I had stacks of paper and pens and pencils. I had managed a handful of office supplies; a mini-stapler, some tape, and a pair of scissors. I remember sitting there for hours creating. My step-dad who was never very encouraging questioned me about my new behavior followed by the lecture that “Writer’s don’t make any money and it’s not a good job option.” Finishing his lecture with the comment that my handwriting was awful.

To say my dreams were subdued by this incident is, to say the least. I allowed my dreams to crash themselves and break on the shore—evaporating into thin air. I did work on my handwriting though but I never really wrote again. I even had to be pushed to write basic things like letters or thank you notes. Not because I didn’t want to but because it hurt too much to write. It broke my heart when I tried.

I didn’t really have to face that fear again until high school, at which point I ended up with a decent English teacher who pushed just hard enough to stir that dream again from its sleep. It wasn’t much, but I wrote again for a little while. And then, life happens as it does and I wasn’t able to write and didn’t allow it to take precedence. That is until my late 20’s when I went back to college.

I probably wasn’t as serious about college as I should have been. But it did stir that urge to write again and this time pushed a need to read along with it. That was nearly 20 years ago and my commitment to writing has been mainly sporadic until about 4 years ago when I started down my own road and paved it with self-education. Since then, I have read 17 books about writing (and am currently reading 3 others), Read and watched interviews, read blogs about writing, watched webinars, participated in a handful of writing groups around town and (most importantly) have been writing like crazy. It’s been over a year and a half that I have written every single day. Even if it was just for ten minutes, though most of the time I write for at least an hour or two.

So now my love of words comes full circle. I still play dictionary games but now it’s usually trying to find the right word. I try to spice up my preposition and verb choices. I put all the things I have learned into practice as I work to improve my prose and write better stories. I have learned to trust my voice and not listen to the little nagging voice that attempts to tell me that it’s all awful and that there is no point to it. Although, (it might be right), I have been writing steadily for 4 years and have not been paid one cent for my time even though I have technically written several novels worth by now. Who does that? Works for free? But it’s what I love to do. It brings together all the little parts that mean nothing by themselves.

Now, as an adult, I sit at one of my two desks to write. I have one for the organic writing (long-hand) and one for editing and word-processing (my computer). For the first time in my writing life, I am finishing stories and sending them out for submissions. I have a handful of helpful readers who give me feedback so that I can focus and tighten what I am trying to say. My final drafts are far more interesting than my first drafts and I suspect that is the way things are supposed to be. I love the writing process and that love has surpassed my love of words. My work has evolved, grown, and improved along with me. I am proud to say that every word has been worth it.

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Working on the Weak Spots

This week, I learned that one of my weak areas within my writing (at least initially) is the area of character development. I can throw out hidden themes that I only catch later, or I can easily come up with a unique setting or problem. But fleshing out my characters never materializes very well in my first initial draft no matter how much I have thought about the character first. This might not sound like a big deal, but considering that great characters are what keeps us reading, it is actually a big problem.

 
I think it is one of the reasons I struggle to write effective short stories. It is a problem that I would love to see myself outgrow and I am now constantly working on developing my main characters. Like all good stories, the current short story that I have been working on started out as a singular thought and is morphing out from that. With the work I have done this week alone, I have turned a 500-word piece into a genuinely good short story of at least double the size. I am actively putting the writing lessons that I have learned over the last several months to work as I polish and develop this story to its fruition.

 
I feel I am learning at an alarmingly fast rate like I am flying downhill on a bike with no brakes. I am scared and thrilled all at the same time. As my deadline approaches, and I see the bottom of the hill, I am wondering if I will find the right way to stop without crashing a good thing. Essentially, I am worried because (another weak area) I know I am not good at endings. They scare me and leave me feeling pained and anxious. But I will do it. I will find a way. I always do.

 
I am starting the actual rewrite today and my goal yesterday was to get as much of the fleshing out and piecework done before my rewrite. Now I can sit down and start piecing it together, weaving in the necessary details together to bring the whole thing to life. Someone once told me that writing is magic and I am beginning to learn how to cast the spell. I am grateful that I have taken the time to learn, question, study, and pursue the aspect of getting it right. It is the most satisfying ending I have come up with, so far.

 

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A Cleaner Slate

This month I started a new exercise in my writing program. (I believe I picked it up from James Scott Bell.) It’s called the “10-minute warm-up” and it starts off each time with the phrase “I remember…” This exercise has done more than just get my writing muscles warmed up and jump-kicked into action, it has also been eye-opening each time I do it and I am discovering new corners of my memories that have been previously ignored.

 

As I get older, there are always moments from my past that stick with me. Oftentimes these moments have either negative connotations or ended up having negative or very unintended consequences. These feelings leave a sting on me and mark me by never letting go. Regrets, I think they are called. Anyhow, doing this lesson has allowed me to look past the moment, around it, under it and giving me the ability to now uncover little things that lay dormant in the corner like dust bunnies waiting for me to sweep them out into the light. These new perceptions and freshly unearthed feelings are becoming something more…some bigger part of a once narrow picture.

 

While currently these memories and images are becoming fresh organic writing fodder, I am also experiencing a wash of healing and acceptance. This is an unexpected outcome of this exercise. One I was not warned of, but I like it. It’s the satisfaction of cleaning and the gleam of a hopeful future instead of the constant hopeless memories that tug at me daily. It is the resurgence of newness and freshness, a cleaner slate to work with.

 

Besides writing every day, this exercise has produced the quickest and most fertile results. I feel like I just leveled up, found a key I have been looking for, or found a satisfying answer to a nagging question. Relief for my regrets while heading for results.

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I Read to Write

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve joked or commented that I wish I could get paid to read. I always envision myself, all curled up on the couch in comfy clothes, my back cushioned on pillows and my legs tucked underneath blankets, a pile of books and snacks on the table next to a cup of hot tea as I sit intently lost in an open book.
Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn’t dawned on me that it could really happen. Yet there I was, sitting in on a conversation about all the ways that writers could make money doing writer related jobs while they work on their novels. The topic of audiobooks came up, to which I joked was my “other dream job” (with the first dream job being a full-time writer, of course!). There was a stir in the room and something stirred inside as the others told me that I could do it, that I should do it. That is when I was introduced to the idea of doing an audiobook audition.
The following week was a whirlwind of research and watching hours of Youtube videos. My research was on everything from microphones to editing software. I got a used USB microphone. I started to learn and utilize the free software that I found called Audacity and played with recording my own voice. I watched video’s on narration and voice-overs and practiced recording myself reading. At first, I was choppy and mechanical. I repeated the same sentence over and over in different tones with different inflections. Finally, I moved my make-shift studio into half of the closet in my writing room. I have arranged, recorded, and listened to my audio, over and over again until I finally felt satisfied with the results.
Luckily, I am proficient enough with a computer that I can set-up, record and edit the tracks easy enough. Now that my “booth” is set up the way I like, I have spent the last few days practicing. I’ve enjoyed the practice so far even though I have to repeat things over and over again. I’m quickly developing an ear for what sounds good. (Although, I now know by heart almost an entire random text out of “A Wrinkle in Time”.)
After my limited experience, I would have to say, this is a good job for someone with some acting skills or background, neither of which do I have. But I long to be an amazing storyteller. I get to try my best to present a story with all the intention and excitement an author has put into the story thus far. I get to dress it up and take it out for a stroll. It seems to me a little ironic that for the last two years, my focus has been on becoming a better storyteller and now I get a chance to… just not in the form I expected.
I still have my dream. I would still love to become an author. I will still try. But I now feel this is also part of my journey. I know that doing this, whether I succeed or not, will help me become a better storyteller. Perhaps this is a door I must walk through to get to the other side or perhaps this is just the next piece of my writing evolution. Either way, I am here and learning and doing as much as I can to tell good stories, to share great ideas and to perhaps add to my working resume. I am both intrigued and blessed by this opportunity and I will do my best to honor it.

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My Experience with a Sledgehammer

Last year an intriguing contest rolled across my Facebook feed. It was held monthly at a local wine shop in Portland, OR. All I knew was that it was a short story writing competition and at the time, I was just getting my feet wet with writing fiction. I had studied books and kind of dabbled a little but that was about it. At this point in my writing progress, I was a strictly solitary writer. I had no groups that I was involved with outside of stalking a handful of websites and Facebook groups online. I was also somewhat disillusioned that all one needed to be a great storyteller was to be able to write well, which I felt confident I could. I walked into the shop knowing no one in the group, at the time that was the part that I thought was brave.

The administrator explained the process. We had 36 minutes (which is why it is called the Mini-Sledgehammer) to write a complete short story (beginning, middle, and end) and it had to include all four prompts (usually a character, action, object, and phrase). At the end of the 36 minutes, we would have a short break to upload our story to the online thread so that we could all follow along as we each read our stories out loud. Then the judges (usually an admin or two plus the previous month’s winner) would select the current winner based on things like story arc and originality. Honestly, the first time, I was devastated that I didn’t win.

But I learned and after I swallowed that jagged little pill, going and participating became something that I loved to do. When I started, I was unaware that actual short stories are deemed the hardest pieces of writing to do well. I was hard on myself for not grasping the concept more, month after month. I was also discouraged but I fought that discouragement back with a heavy dose of determination.

With each session that passed, just listening to the other’s stories, I was so inspired by their levels of creativity that it started to affect my own. I learned and I grew as a writer because of the group. Last night was my fifth time attending and while I once again did not win, I smiled with the acceptance that I am getting better. While I still have a long ways to go, I am grateful for the improvement. I am inspired by the group’s observations and comments on my writing and am more dedicated than ever. Not to win but to succeed where I once floundered.

Here is yesterday’s attempt, unedited.

Mini-sledgehammer for May 2018
36 minutes, 4 prompts

 

Character: a kid with chickenpox
Action: opening a window
Object: a lava vent
Phrase: “I always perform magnificently!”

Smoke and Scars
Written by Jaimee Walls

Baxter Bradley sat in his dingy south facing room, the sun beat across his spotted chest and sweat gathered on his brow like the smoke on the horizon. He itched all over even where his mom had spotted the calamine lotion leaving him feeling like a bingo card on breast cancer awareness night. Grandma used to drag him along with her before she died. Like a statue, he waited for the alarm to sound again. He wanted to get up and at least draw the curtain but he didn’t have the strength to do so. His mom would be home soon.
The alarms were sounding again and the ground shook from time to time. He knew the danger was growing closer but it’s not like he could run or anything, not today. Why did all the cool stuff happen when he was sick? He had a vision of being like the men years ago who engineered a series of pipes to put out the lava flow hardening it into a crispy crust of new land. He pictured the congratulations from all the community and news crews. He would announce with no unnecessary certainty that he outsmarted the lava vent that grew into a fissure covering miles of his hometown. “I always perform magnificently!” he announced as he tried to raise himself slightly so that he could creep into a spot where the sun wasn’t going to make things hotter.
He heard the front door as his mother came in and fought to open the window, it slapping open and wind rushing in. “It’s as hot as that lava vent in here!” she announced and turned on the overhead fan. “How are you feeling?”
“Like butter burning in a pan…” he winced as she checked his forehead.
“I’m going to go run you a bath.”
“Not another bath mom, come on. Besides I can barely get up. Shouldn’t we be evacuating or something?”
“There is a ship waiting, just in case, but the authorities say we should be fine.” She grabbed the calamine lotion and the bag of cotton balls. He started scratching just at the sight of them.
“Don’t scratch, you’ll scar.” She held his hands down as she dotted the spots again.
The siren went off with a sick sound of its own followed by a low grumble beneath Baxter’s bed. A dog howled along with the siren. Outside a scar in the earth was growing wider, setting things ablaze and devouring every little thing it touched. Smoke drifted in through the window and danced with the thin curtains. He pictured the pools of lava licking flames along the little things in his life. Part of his school was gone so at least there was that. It might be a nice long summer, he just wondered if there would be anywhere left to play.

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Novel Number Two

During the month of March, I was introduced to the continuation of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) with Camp Nano, which is always done in April. I persuaded myself to attempt the same feat that I had accomplished just a few months ago back in November. There is this one character that I have carried around in my “back pocket” for a few years and knew she was ready for a novel of her own. I decided this was the perfect time to bring her to the surface. I gave her her own spotlight and stepped back to see what would happen.

I started out on April 1st with all the gusto and feeling I had from November. In the weeks before, I had taken the time to develop her backstory as well as creating a current “situation” and even a subplot full of personal tension. I gave her a bit of a platform and set out to tell a harrowing tale! During this time, I also started or was in the process of reading 3 heavy-hitting books. “The Art of War for Writer’s” by James Scott Bell, “Character’s and Point of View” by Orson Scott Card, and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I also didn’t fully take into account the fact that April is our busiest month of the year at my work and that I was scheduled for almost double my normal workload.

Like I said, things were good at first. Although I wasn’t regularly hitting my word count and I knew it. I was exhausted from work but I kept telling myself that I could catch up. I got sick. I caught the crud. Of course, I did. I was stretched too thin already and barely able to keep my house clean. I was managing to get some reading done and in turn, learning things along the way but not getting much in the way of actual writing done.

As my story became clearer and clearer, I realized that I had more work to do before I could really keep writing, or at least that is what I told myself. The truth was I had lost my way. I had taken on too much and my learning was getting in the way of my writing at that point. For the first time since I started writing again, I hit a full-blown wall of solid writer’s block. Through my reading, I learned why I hit this particular wall, but it did me no good as far as finishing the manuscript by my deadline. I had oversold myself and needed to step back. So I did.

This is also the first time I didn’t beat myself up for not finishing by my deadline. I showed myself some compassion and for once, I learned something by not finishing. I learned that reading a brilliant book like “The Silence of the Lambs” makes your own writing look even more amateurish than you would ever think possible. Also, I would not recommend reading any type of learning books while trying to reach such a tight goal. I worked on things that are developmental in nature instead of just focusing on getting the story out. I ended up changing the direction so much that I couldn’t recover fast enough to keep the ball rolling, not with me on top of it anyway.

So, once again my character goes into my back pocket. Only this time, for the next few weeks, as I finish up these books I am reading, I will be working on her character and her story, but this time from the pinhole points of synopsis and loglines, developing elevator pitches, voice journals and honing her story down to the barest essentials. I will take the current story skeleton that I have and piece it together like Dr. Frankenstein and put meat on its bones like fattening a calf for slaughter. When I am finished, I hope to have done my character justice and while I’m no Thomas Harris, I hope to create a lasting character, with deeper substance and an amazing story.

I did not win the contest (because I did not reach 50k in one month) for Camp Nano this year. However, I did win in general because I am learning to set my character into motion and develop a story like never before. While there is still plenty of writing to be done, I am proud every time I stretch my wings and at least try. I always accomplish more than I would have if I had never tried at all.

Camp

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