Coloring Within the Lines

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In the past year or so, adult coloring books have become very popular, with countless articles written about the trend in an attempt to understand it. Here are just a few:

Some are dismissive of the trend, viewing it as “Peter Pan” behavior by adults who don’t want to grow up, parallel to the rise in popularity of young adult fiction among adults. Others take a more generous perspective, seeing coloring as akin to meditation and other meditative activities such as knitting, a way to quiet one’s mind and be creative within boundaries.

Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in. … [T]he coloring … involve[s] repetitive motion and limited space in which to work, creating a locus point around which thoughts can revolve. [Julie Beck, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books”]

Like coloring books, writing contests, prompts, and challenges provide a frame to work within. Facing a blank page can be intimidating. Having a place to start can help assuage some of those fears.

This month’s exercise is to choose a frame and “color within in the lines.” Don’t think of the parameters as a limitation. Think of them as freeing your mind to be creative instead of staring at a blank page and stressing about what to write.

Some suggestions for your frame:

  • contest guidelines (even if you don’t actually plan to enter, give them a try)
  • writing prompts (try using more than one at a time) or challenges
  • formal poetry has built-in constraints—make your frame a sonnet or haiku
  • use an existing story (perhaps from another medium, such as a movie or TV series)
    • retell a story (e.g. a fairy tale) from a different character’s point-of-view or in a different time period or setting
    • write a prequel or sequel to an existing story
    • flesh out an existing story
  • make up your own rules, for example:
    • choose a theme (alphabet, seasons, cities…)
    • restrict word length
    • restrict genre
    • write all in dialogue
    • limit the number of characters
    • include a specific person (e.g. a celebrity or another famous person)

If you like, you can transform these pieces later, but first and foremost think of this exercise as a low-stakes warm-up, a way of getting past your blocks, stretching your writing muscles, and easing into your primary writing project (perhaps that one you’ve been avoiding). To make it more like a coloring book frame, have both short-term (equivalent to completing a page) and long-term (equivalent to completing a book) end-points.

Who Are You?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This one’s for those of you who find yourself falling down internet rabbit holes when you should be doing something else.

Set a timer. ⏱ How long is up to you—adapt it to the time you have available. For example, if you have a half-hour of free time, set your timer for 15 minutes.

Pick any real person, dead or alive, and find out everything you can about them. Type their name into your favorite search engine… and go! Click from link to link, but with purpose. In the course of your research, if you find someone (or something) more interesting than your original subject, don’t hesitate to make a detour. You’re looking for a story idea—an intriguing character, an unsolved mystery, a fantastic setting.

Time’s up! Stop researching, set your timer for the remainder of your time, and write, using your research as inspiration.

This exercise can be done any time, anywhere, as long as you have your phone with you, and is a great way to make productive use of time you might otherwise spend aimlessly surfing.

Snapshots: What Are You Reading?

Gallery

This gallery contains 9 photos.

By Beaver Keeping a reading journal can be very satisfying. Not only do you get a feeling of accomplishment each time you add a new entry, but you’re creating a guide you can refer to whenever you need a reminder … Continue reading

Elements of Style

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Some writers avoid social media like the plague, coming up with all manner of reasons why it’s detrimental to their writing (and everyone else’s). Other writers enthusiastically embrace it, testing out and playing with new technology, and incorporating what works into their writing practice.

I tend to admire writers who are willing to explore new technology, like Margaret Atwood, who is in her seventies and still trying new ways of writing, over those who dismiss all new technology outright, like Jonathan Franzen, who was apparently born a grumpy old man with a distaste for anything invented after his birth.

For this month’s exercise, visit the websites and social media of some of your favorite writers. Think about what they do well—what aspects appeal to you? what made you hit “follow”?—and then renovate your online writer presence based on your observations.

Some things to think about:

  • Blogging is a legitimate form of writing, and so is serializing work on a site like Wattpad. Writers have parlayed humorous social media accounts and fan fiction into book deals. Keep in mind if you have a knack for a type of writing that’s suited to social media, your social media accounts might not be a distraction from your real writing, they might actually be your real writing.
  • You can’t do it all, so what’s your focus going to be? Which platform gives you the most satisfaction? Which feels most natural? What benefits your writing most? Make that your primary focus, your everyday platform.
  • You may want to have one platform for brief updates and informal interactions with other writers and readers, and another for longer posts or more formal content (book descriptions, event schedules, etc.). For example, many writers enjoy Twitter as the work-from-home version of the workplace water cooler, a place to talk about writing and current events, while also maintaining a blog or Facebook page.
  • If you’re only going to use one platform, make sure anyone can access it whether or not they have an account.
  • Close or make private accounts you’re no longer using. If you want to keep other accounts active, repost content from your primary platform (set this up to happen automatically if you can) or use them occasionally for more specialized content.
  • Some writers like to maintain separate personal and professional accounts; others prefer to combine personal and professional. Accounts that provide a glimpse into writers’ personal lives and other interests tend to be more interesting for readers/followers, but not everyone is comfortable sharing personal content with strangers. Be honest with yourself about your comfort zone.
  • Use consistent branding (same username, design, color scheme, logo, graphics, etc.) and link your accounts together so readers can easily find you on different platforms.

Word Association Story

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Create a grab bag of words. Write random words on slips of paper or clip them from old magazines and place them in a container to draw from. This would be a good writing group or classroom activity, as each person would contribute different words to the grab bag and no one would know what to expect when the draw was made.

Alternatively, use one of these random word generators:

  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; include/exclude duplicate words)
  • random word generator (options: generate 1-8 random words; click/drag to rearrange words; double-click to swap out a word for a new one)
  • random word generator (options: generate 2-10 random words; temporarily save words you like to a list)
  • random word generator (options: generate one word at at time)
  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; choose first and/or last letter; choose number of syllables or letters)

Draw one word and write the first sentence that comes to mind using that word. (Like a word association game, but word ➡️ sentence instead of word ➡️ word.) Repeat nine more times, so you have a total of ten sentences.

Write a story using all ten sentences. These sentences can be rearranged (used in any order) but must be used as-is. The ten original sentences are just a starting point—add as much as you need to fill in and complete the story.

If you do this exercise as a group, read the stories aloud once they’re complete.

Alternative group story exercise: After everyone has completed their 10 sentences, have one person start by choosing one of their sentences as the first sentence of the story. Go around the room in turn. Each person can either add a sentence to the story or pass when it comes to their turn. Stop when someone runs out of sentences. Read the completed story out loud.

Choose Your Own Adventure!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Write a “choose your own adventure”-style story. That is, start writing your story, but when you get to a point where your main character has to make a decision, first continue the story with the character making one choice (up to the point where another decision has to be made), then go back to the fork in the road and write the story with the character making a different choice.

Pick at least three points in your story where it could go in two or more directions and write each of the versions.

A simple version of this exercise would go something like this, and result in eight different versions of the story:

  • Original story 📝 at the first fork, choose A or B.
    • A story 📝 at the second fork, choose C or D.
      • C story 📝 at the third fork, choose G or H.
        • G story 📝 continue to the end.
        • H story 📝 continue to the end.
      • D story 📝 at the third fork, choose I or J.
        • I story 📝 continue to the end.
        • J story 📝 continue to the end.
    • B story 📝 at the second fork, choose E or F.
      • E story 📝 at the third fork, choose K or L.
        • K story 📝 continue to the end.
        • L story 📝 continue to the end.
      • F story 📝 at the third fork, choose M or N.
        • M story 📝 continue to the end.
        • N story 📝 continue to the end.

Of course, stories can get more complicated than this, with more options and storylines backtracking and crisscrossing on each other. Play around and have fun with it.

While a choose-your-own-adventure story can be meant to be read as-is, this is also a good exercise for exploring your options when working through the plot of a longer story or novel.

It’s also a great way to complete a challenge like NaNoWriMo if you “run out of story” before reaching your word goal. Go back through your story and look for points where it could have gone in a different direction and write those versions. You might find you like one of the alternate stories better than the original.

Modify an Old Book

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the title character is an unidentified man whose only link to his past is an old book he used as a notebook / commonplace book:

She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed. It is the book he brought with him through the fire—a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus. (p. 16)

And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name. (p. 96)

This month’s exercise is to use the English patient’s book as inspiration.

Step One: Find an old book to repurpose. I suggest starting with a used book that already has some scuffs and scrapes so it doesn’t feel too precious to modify.

If you don’t want to use a book you already own, look for a suitable book at a used bookstore (check the discount bin out front) or charity book sale. Tip: library book sales often sell hardcover books for $1 or less.

While you can start with any book, a copy of a favorite novel, a nonfiction book whose subject is interesting to you, or one with aesthetic appeal (but perhaps less-than-interesting content) are good options.

Step Two: Modify your book! You can play with the existing text or treat it more like a blank journal.

Some suggestions:

  • create found poetry using the existing text
  • paste in photos, clippings, tickets, etc.
  • doodle or draw
  • add patterns or color
  • write notes in the margins
  • journal between the lines
  • fill in blank pages
  • write an alternate ending or add a “missing” chapter
  • add a character
  • modify illustrations/photographs
  • dry leaves or flowers between the pages

Step Three: Continue until your book feels finished. Use your book as a source of inspiration for your writing—both during the process of creating it and afterward.

[Page numbers from the 1992 Vintage edition.]

Track Your Submissions

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. If you haven’t already, set up a way to track your submissions. Duotrope’s submission tracker used to be free but when Duotrope went pay, so did the submission tracker. Membership is $5 per month, less if you sign up for a year. Writer’s Database has a submission tracker and free accounts.
  2. When you set up your submission tracker, go through your email and add everything you’ve ever submitted. It can be inspiring to remember how many times you gave it a shot.
  3. Set a goal for submitting your work over the next three months, like:
    • Send out a story every Thursday for 12 weeks.
    • Clean out your file of unfinished or abandoned work and polish one piece for submission within 90 days.
    • Submitting poetry? Max out your submission. If you only have one poem slated to send but the journal accepts three per submission, add two poems. You never know what will move an editor.
  4. Read the submission guidelines for a handful of random journals. New Pages runs a nice listing, as does Poets & Writers. Compare submission guidelines for similarities and differences. If you’re curious about why a journal has set a specific criterion, click through to read it and you might discover further explanation at the site.

Start a Project Blog

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

One of the big appeals of writing challenges like NaNoWriMo or April’s NaPoWriMo is that they have a concrete timeframe and goal, whether it be to write a 50,000-word novel in a month or thirty poems in thirty days. Even if the task as a whole seems daunting, it can be broken down into manageable daily goals: don’t worry about writing 30 poems, focus on writing one poem a day.

Because a writing challenge is finite, it’s easier to keep going on those days when you’re uninspired, tired, or busy. You can remind yourself if you skip a day, you’ll have to make it up later. You can remind yourself you only have X days left, you can do it! You can remind yourself how good you will feel when you complete the challenge.

Writing challenges give you the satisfaction of completing a project. At that point, you can decide what you want to do next: keep writing? start editing? set it aside and move on to something new? Whatever you decide to do next, even if it’s stick your project in a drawer and never look at it again, doesn’t take away from the fact you finished (and, of course, celebrated!)

The challenge-goal reached-reward cycle is what keeps people going for years in many endeavors, but it’s often something lacking in a writer’s life. Writers tell themselves they need to write everyday—indefinitely, forever! Then they get mad at themselves when their enthusiasm for a project started a decade prior wanes. A writing life without meeting goals and taking the time to reward oneself for doing so is a recipe for burn out.

So this month’s challenge is designed to get you moving away from setting goals with no end in sight. For this challenge, you’re going to start a project “blog.” Any social media platform can be used for this project as long as it allows you to post text. Your project blog should be separate from your existing social media. In other words, don’t use an existing account for this project—start fresh! Your project should have a theme, a writing goal, and a set timeframe for completion.

Example: write 52 100-word flash stories, each based on a photograph, in a year.

Think about your daily life and your existing commitments when deciding on your project. Be realistic! The point of this project is give you the satisfaction of reaching a tough, but manageable, goal. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Do-X-every-day-for-a-year projects are popular, but keep in mind it’s hard to do anything every single day for a year. If you do attempt such a project make sure your daily goal is small.

Challenges like NaPoWriMo work well because the writing goal is for the entire length of the project. Writing one poem each day is one way to reach your monthly goal of 30 poems, but it’s not the only way. You might have days during the week when you have time for writing and days when you don’t, making it better for you to write two or three poems on the days when you have more time.

It’s good to have some flexibility built in, especially for a long project. Setting a daily goal for a year and then missing day 360 because you simply got busy and forgot would be demoralizing. If the platform you’re using for your project allows you to schedule posts, take advantage of it. Schedule time to work on your project as you would any other appointment, and set a reminder in your calendar so you don’t forget.

When you reach your goal: celebrate, then re-evaluate. Do you want to continue, take a break, or try something new? If you do decide to continue, renew your project for the same timeframe, just like renewing a library book.

Who’s On Your Guest List?

A Pen In Each HandBy Harpspeed

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

It’s your turn. Imagine you could meet a favorite character from a work of fiction. Any character. Whom would you choose? A character from your own shelves? A character from your past? Or how about a character you haven’t met yet? Perhaps, someone who was once recommended to you? (For me it would be that astronaut from the book and the film, The Martian.) A stranger-character? How intriguing that would be!

Now imagine you could invite a dozen or more characters to your house for a party or a backyard barbecue or what-have-you? The trick is to know your characters well, to be select with your choices: Would they like each other? Would they share similar traits or politics? Would you break out the tequila or the sherry or make a grab for Chekov’s gun on the wall?

Please share this occasion with your friends at Toasted Cheese. Tell us who you plan to invite and do tell us why. Or tell us after the fact. Was it a “screaming” success or did you lose a few guests? Did any characters run off together? Any foul play? Just a sentence or two is fine. We can read between the lines. We’re pretty good at that.

Harpspeed
TC Reviews Editor

P.S. A few words to the wise: You may want to steer clear of the psychopaths and vampires. They can be so unpredictable! If you insist on inviting one or more, be sure to have a strong antagonist or protagonist with them to keep them in check. And be mindful: characters can change whether for good or for bad. Those are the best characters and the most interesting guests! They also stay with us long after their stories resolve.