By Tex Thompson
Striving scriveners. Intrepid introverts. Fellow fearless fictioneers. I am so honored to write for Writers in the Storm today. I’ve recently enjoyed a ridiculous near-death experience that I think may help you make a serious, profound change (in your life or in your work) … and funnily enough, it involves actual writers in an actual storm.
The event we call Writers in the Field came from a simple idea: a thirteen-acre, mostly-outdoor annual weekend experience where writers can actually make, use, handle, and DO the things they’re writing about. We shoot bows and arrows, work mock crime scenes, handle horses, study ballistics and poisons, try on period garments and armor – the whole nine yards.
It was fantastically successful during its first year in 2017, and we were so excited to bring out even more experts and hands-on sessions in 2018. We worked hard on it all year long, promoted and planned it for months on end, and… well, you know how announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh?
Yeah – He busted a gut all over us. We got over a foot of rain in 24 hours. Rivers of mud. Flooded roads. Just an absolutely Biblical deluge.
Y’all, I was sure we were sunk (especially after the food truck fell in a ditch and blocked the entrance). I was SURE we would have to cancel, refund, and go bankrupt.
And then the most amazing thing happened.
A writer wandered up to the ticket booth and said “is this where we check in?”
And then another two. And then a group of three. A dozen more. A hundred more. They were streaming in, y’all – parking out on the main road and hiking a quarter-mile in the mud and the pouring rain. And they were READY.
We couldn’t believe it. It was the most incredible thing. And even as we frantically cancelled, swapped, postponed, and slapdash-surgeried our Saturday schedule around every new contingency, the writers joyfully took in everything we offered – and started engineering novel experiences of their own.
‘Foot selfies’ became a hot thing. So did full-body mud-shots. And as our grounds crew tamped down straw-and-branch walkways and ditch-witched cars out of the muck, the last thing they expected was an eager note-taking audience.
And then the tornado hit… but that’s another story.
And that’s when the light bulb came on, y’all. That’s when the big idea hit. I realized that my job was never to control or dictate what kind of experience writers would have at our event. My job was to offer them a place where they COULD have a new experience.
I’ve come to all sorts of conclusions since then. About what a joy it is to discover your own resilience, and how deeply our under-brains are stimulated by the raw and natural world, and (paradoxically) how much less fragile we feel whenever we escape the rut of our daily lives. More than anything, though, I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves or someone we love is a place where new experiences are possible.
After all, that is literally the core of the Hero’s Journey, isn’t it? Powerful, transformational change only happens once we leave our ordinary world behind… even if only for a few hours. And you don’t need a capital-E event in order to treat yourself to a singular, electrifying, inertia-smashing change of scenery. They’re literally all around us.
Three thoughts, then:
- When you need to think new thoughts, put yourself in a new place.
- Radical changes in behavior happen with radical changes in environment.
- As a storyteller, you are already more powerful and resilient than most. But you will never discover your true strength from comfort and safety of your own cozy hobbit-hole.
That’s the thought I’d like to leave you with. You have already weathered every storm that’s come your way – but even more wonderful things can happen when you willingly venture out to meet them.
So What do you think? Have you ever survived an experience to take something very different away from it than you planned?
Arianne "Tex" Thompson was once described as "an explosion of 52 enthusiastic kittens latching onto everything at once." In addition to writing the 'Children of the Drought' epic fantasy Western series, Tex is the founder and 'chief instigator' for WORD - Writers Organizations 'Round Dallas. When she's not leading the charge at home in Dallas, Tex brings her particular brand of 'red-penthusiasm' to conferences, conventions, and workshops all over the country - as an egregiously enthusiastic, endlessly energetic one-woman stampede. Find her online at The Tex Files!
How many of you meditate?
It’s a practice we’ve started building into our family evenings each night, and something I hope to one day be good at. Meditation is good for managing anxiety, depression, stress. It’s also good for learning to be open to new ideas and people who may be threatening to our own ideals.
And really, that’s what being a creative is all about. Being open.
I recently did a virtual creativity retreat with Creative Wellness Retreats, and our creativity coach, Kerry Schafer, led us through a guided meditation, but at the end, she did something I wasn’t used to.
She geared the meditation toward our creative projects.
I started the meditation not feeling excited about my project because I’d hit a bit of a wall, and by the end of the meditation I’d not only found renewed energy for the story, but for the entire creative process.
That particular meditation was two days ago, as of this writing, and I’m still feeling the positive effects. And it took less than 5 minutes.
What is meditation?
I feel like a lot of people think meditation is some new-age, woo-woo thing that only hippies and hipsters do.
Meditation is an ancient practice to transform the mind. That sounds woo-woo. Let me try again.
Meditation is a thing that’s been around since forever and is a way to train your brain to be aware of your own thoughts and emotions.
Not zone out or go to your nothing box. But to learn how to observe your thoughts, reactions, and emotions, and begin to understand them and yourself better.
See? Not woo-woo.
Writing is a form of meditation.
I think that’s why so many of us first turned to writing. We had a need to understand some deep emotion or reaction or thought we didn’t have the words for. And our stories were a way to help us dig down into that feeling or reaction or thought until we found the center of truth.
When you meditate, you turn off your worry, anxiety, negativity, and when you’re on the other side of it, you have a new perspective. It’s a little like sunlight pouring through a window. After meditation, the light reaches that angle where the window turns it into a rainbow.
Could meditating speed up your writing process?
Think of how much deeper you could go with your writing if you started your writing session by first meditating for five minutes. Even better? Present yourself with the next scene or story problem at the start of your meditation, then, through the practice of meditation, let it go. Let it flow. Then let it come back and present itself to you in a new light.
Other forms of meditation...
Meditation isn’t a rigid practice. Sometimes, meditation can be a simple as listening to the wind blow through the trees, or breathing while watching the ocean. Even reading can be a form of meditation, when it takes you away from your worry and allows you to reflect on your own reactions and thoughts to the story, and your life.
Before your next writing session, try five minutes of meditation and invite your creative project to join you. I think you’ll be surprised at the renewed energy you’ll find.
About Christina Delay
Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and the brand new Creative Wellness Retreats as well as an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. She may also have a new series out with Jules Lynn under a pen name. When she's not cruising the Caribbean, she's dreaming up new writing retreats to take talented authors on or giving into the demands of imaginary people to tell their stories.
About Cruising Writers
Cruising Writers brings writers together with bestselling authors, an agent, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor writing retreats around the world. Cruise with us to the Bahamas this November with Alexandra Sokoloff of the internationally-renowned Screenwriting Tricks for Fiction Authors, Kerry Anne King - Washington Post and Amazon Charts bestselling author, and Michelle Grajkowski of 3 Seas Literary.
For those of us who want to make a living writing, we often get bogged down by all we need to learn about craft, all we need to know about publishing, and all we need to do about marketing.
While I'm completely in favor of doing All The Things to create wonderful stories and send them out to readers, we can find ourselves missing out on the joy that used to fuel our storytelling. After all, it's now our business, and one definition of business is "serious activity requiring time and effort and usually the avoidance of distractions" (Merriam-Webster).
In 2017 and 2018, I really struggled with the seriousness of it all. I'd been writing in some form or fashion for 10 years, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. So I started running toward it like a marathon competitor with laser focus on the finish line ribbon. But somehow, while I made progress, I didn't hit that ribbon and mostly ended up feeling sweaty and exhausted.
And then, I had a conversation with my critique partner. We talked about losing some of the excitement we'd originally had in writing stories. And somehow, by the end of the discussion (which may have included wine), we'd decided to co-write a series.
But not just any series. A fun series that let our imaginations run wild!
So we did it. We've written three books for our supernatural fantasy/mystery series, the first one of which we recently released. And while still treating it all as a serious endeavor, we've had a ball!
But while I love co-writing, I don't think it's for everyone. Rather, here are some ideas we've learned along the way that can help you rediscover the fun of writing.
1. Create a setting you want to visit.
We imagined a fictional island with mythological beings. And not just Greek or Roman mythology, but the whole kit-and-caboodle. This played on my writing partner's love of mythology, my enjoyment of research, and our mutual fondness of the beach.
But think about other worlds in fiction that have stuck with us. Narnia. Avonlea. Wonderland. Hogwarts. Things aren't always perfect there, but they are intriguing places we'd love to see. Even places that involve threats we wouldn't want to encounter—like Jurassic Park or the Hunger Games arena—are places we might want to go as a neutral reporter or a fly-on-the-wall.
It doesn't have to be a fantasy world. It could be a city you with interesting sites, a neighborhood you want to know more about, an industry you find fascinating. Our blog hostesses run the gamut—with Fae Rowen setting a story in space, Laura Drake setting stories at rodeos, and Jenny Hansen setting a story at a healthcare clinic for the adult entertainment industry—but all interesting places. Just come up with a place you're excited to visit for a couple hundred pages.
2. Craft characters you'd love to hang out with.
Well, duh, you say. And I get that, because of course you wouldn't write a main character you have no desire to write about. But I wonder if we consider this principle well enough when crafting secondary and tertiary characters. When you need an extra character to do something in a scene, do you create someone who fits the bill—or makes your stomach flutter?
I can honestly say that there isn't a single character in the books my co-author and I have written who isn't someone we'd like to hang out with. For a few of them, we'd want a Plexiglas barrier or a force field separating us, but we'd be curious enough to want to meet them in person.
Sadly, I can't say that about all the manuscripts I have written, but now that I've seen how much fun it is to make every single character count, you can bet I'll be editing some of those scenes to make each character compete to be the most compelling. Of course this makes it harder for your main character to shine, but what a great challenge to live up to!
3. Add some spunk.
Are you holding back on throwing in those fun lines? Making that larger-than-life character? Adding that chase scene on roller skates? Subtly including your ex in the story and then killing them off?
Hey, it's your story. Have fun. Add your personal brand of spunk.
My co-author excels at clever characters and settings, and she brought in some fabulous ones. Meanwhile, I adore writing banter and humorous dialogue. We leaned into our own brands of spunk on the page, and it was fun. (In our case, not only fun to write, but fun to read what our partner came up with.)
Some of the authors who stick with us are especially good at this. Whatever else you think of bestsellers like Stephen King, Dr. Seuss, and J.K. Rowling, they took what they did well and played it to the hilt. They showed spunk.
4. Toss in a few goodies.
Let's head back to Hogwarts. (Yes, I know some of you never read the Harry Potter series, but stick with me for a moment.) You know what people are still talking about oh-these-many years later? Places like Platform 9¾ where Harry boards the train to his new wizarding school and Diagon Alley where various magical merchants sell their wares. Items like the moving staircases at the school and the unique wands each student used. Even living things like the Whomping Willow that ate a car and the owls who ran a rather curious mail system between residents and the outside world. Are any of these specifics crucial to J.K. Rowling's story? Nope. They're just goodies!
Again, it needn't be a fantasy world where you throw in fun stuff. Let me switch to film and give you a few examples of goodies that weren't crucial to the story, but fun for both writer and audience:
- Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars: A New Hope
- Alligator boots in Romancing the Stone
- Boombox in Say Anything
- Twin Pines/Lone Pine mall in Back to the Future
And yes, I know those are older films, but even my Gen-Z (or whatever) sons have seen three of them. So hopefully, you recognize something there!
The point is to throw in something extra goodie, an Easter egg from another novel, a funny setting, an inside joke, a memorable scene. For instance, we've had fun with cocktails—yes, cocktails.
Writing a great story is hard. But it can also be really fun. And when you have fun with your story, your readers are more likely to enjoy it too. Look for ways to amp up the fun factor.
What ideas do you have for adding more fun when writing a book?
Julie Glover usually writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. But she recently branched out to co-author the Muse Island Series with Kris Faryn, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn. You can visit the series website here, follow the Facebook page here, or head to her Jules Lynn website to learn more.
by Fae Rowen
I'm not one hundred percent certain, but I'm pretty sure that the perfect writer doesn't exist. It certainly isn't me.
When I began writing the second book in my published series, I wanted it to be perfect. That meant it had to be more exciting, more emotion-packed, a real page-turner. I wrote a little, then revised. And revised. And revised. Then tossed that opening and tried another. Eight months later I should have had a book. I had two-thirds of a wobbly, structurally inadequate novel that I knew had major problems.
I did anything to keep from sitting in that chair in front of my computer, working on what I knew was a sinking ship. I couldn't figure out how to fix it. The book I'd loved and thought about for more than three years, couldn't come together no matter how hard I banged my head on the desk.
I grew up demanding perfection of myself. My father had been a staff sergeant in the Army, then a tool-and-die maker who made dies with tolerances in the microns. His livelihood was based on perfect measurements and execution of detail. I tried to be just like him.
Years later, I discovered how freeing it was to let that need for being perfect go. I've succeeded in many areas, but sometimes I slip back into those old familiar patterns. PRISM: Book Two was birthed in a perfect storm of the search for perfection.
Last year I had to rehab from a couple of injuries. My physical activity took a big hit, which affected my mental confidence and my health in general. Who knew it would also affect my writing? But it did.
My main characters weren't as capable or confident as they were in the first book. They waited for things to happen to them, instead of making their own choices. I left out many details and scenes that I thought would be boring. But those scenes were necessary to the continuity and context of the story. I thought the story was going to be about the love interest from the first book, but the original main character's story wasn't complete.
Even though I had read about deep POV and wrote in deep POV, I took a writing class on deep Point of View. It was filled with new information, exercises, and ideas. I tried them out with varying degrees of success. Practice was necessary to hone my new skills.
As soon as my editor pointed out that the story needed to focus on my original main character, who'd been left in a semi-cliff hanger situation, the book got back on track. Not surprising, this coincided with the resolution of my injuries and my ability to walk my beloved trails again.
I have a new deadline, which I'll meet, and I'm happy with the development of the story. I'm writing again—and loving it. Even though I know my words aren't perfect, aren't woven together without flaws, they are at least flowing and telling a coherent story.
Perfectionism is that critical writer's voice that you must sometimes set aside to put words on the page. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it stops you from doing something you want to do. That's what happened to me. My "real" life was far from perfect, so I tried to be perfect in my writer's world. Perfectionism can rob us of our dreams by keeping us from starting something that we know won't be perfect or by stopping us from completing an imperfect work.
For me, an increase in physical activity helped me push through the old patterns. It wasn't a huge change, but walking out in nature again gave me new ideas, an appreciation for the life around me, and the impetus to make the changes I needed to make in my writing and my life.
Write your best book now. Learn the skills you'll need to improve your prose, perfect your craft, and polish your book. Don't let perfectionism hold you back; let it catapult you into the career you deserve.
Has the need to be perfect affected your writing? How?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules. P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
You might’ve heard that setting can be a character in your story. But did you know that setting can be as crucial to your story as your character? Location matters. Imagine if The Shining took place in a quaint bed and breakfast with an uplifting soundtrack? Or if the house Noah lovingly built for Allie in The Notebook turned out to be haunted like the mansion in The Haunting of Hill House?
The way you stage the setting in your story deepens the experience for both the character and the reader. Whether you’re being blatant or subtle, dropping heavy detail or sprinkling light clues, how you present a place tells readers how to feel about it.
We tend to form impressions of people the first time we meet them—whether we mean to or not. We do the same with places. The first time a new setting is introduced, the reader will form a lasting impression. That’s the image they’ll pull up on their mental movie screen every time that location makes an appearance. Let’s make sure they’re seeing what you want them to see and feeling what you want them to feel.
In BRING YOUR BOOK TO LIFE PART I, we talked about character descriptions. If you missed that post, you can find it here: Characters Are People Too.
THE SET UP
Readers can’t see what you don’t show. Give the most description the first time we visit a new place, or all the reader will see is a white room.
Example: The city of Runaway hit its peak in the late ’60s with a storefront combination city hall, sheriff’s office, pizza place, post office, and library—if library meant a couple hundred donated paperback romance novels.
Example: The sixties had birthed this office. Shaggy avocado carpet covered the floor. Old books with multicolored spines bulged from bowed shelves that lined two of the four walls floor to ceiling. The hulking bookcases gave the room an I’m-closing-in-on-you feel.
Consider pointing out what’s not there—or what’s missing that should be there—to help paint a strong picture.
Example: There were no couches or lounges. Just an ugly metal desk, a tall gray filing cabinet, and two retro command chairs that could have come off the set of the original Star Trek.
When you take us back to a place you’ve already introduced, give a small reminder that brings back your original description.
Example: I leaned against the hulking bookcase and glanced down at the stiff shag carpet wondering just how crunchy it would feel under my toes if I kicked off my shoes.
Sometimes you don’t need an actual physical description. Using common places that most people are familiar with gives an immediate picture.
Example: If Gwyn had to spend one more second pushing through the crowd at Macy’s, this would be her last ever black Friday.
It works the same way with phrases. And places can have personalities too.
Example: It didn’t help that I was alone in a house that was more “modern mausoleum” than “contemporary living.”
Paint the White Room
Don’t be mysterious in a scene opening and wait to let us know where your characters are. Part of writing a good visual is giving that visual up front. Unless your character doesn’t know where she is, we need to know.
Is your scene inside? Outside? In a car? In an office? A restaurant? A house? If you don’t tell us, we might catch on eventually, but we’ll be so busy trying to figure it out, we’ll miss what’s actually going on in the story. Plus, you’ve lost the opportunity to pull “setting” out of your writer’s toolbox and use it.
Example: Kim stretched her legs under the table, bumping her son’s foot with her sandal.
Jason glanced away, his lips pale and his face chalky. Not the best look for a ten-year-old and light years from his usual light-up-the-room smile.
The drone of conversation buzzed through the clinic’s congested coffee shop like annoying insects Kim wanted to swat away. Two nurses in cartoon scrubs waited for their early-morning caffeine fix while a guy in a suit held up the line ordering some complicated latte he should’ve gotten from Starbucks.
(Immediately we know Kim is sitting at a table with Jason in a busy coffee shop that’s also located in a medical setting, and not for a good reason.)
Example: Jason shivered even though the sun-warmed leather seat of Mom’s van burned his back. People walked across the parking lot and disappeared inside the clinic. But no one looked at him. Or Mom. Sort of like they were invisible.
(Immediately we know Jason is in Mom’s van in a clinic parking lot, and it’s probably mid-afternoon because the seat is warm.)
GET IN THE MOOD
Atmosphere is Everything
Example: The faint glow of the fireplace and a few table lamps cast the sunken living room in a mix of light and shadow. A brown sofa on a thick bearskin rug faced the hearth. Two overstuffed loveseats and a cherry coffee table completed the conversation area. Compared to the cutting chill of my current company, the chalet teased me with visions of books, blankets, and endless mugs of hot chocolate.
Make an Emotional Connection
How your character feels about a place deepens the physical description.
Example: Oak Cliff High: Preparatory Academy and Boarding School. Breeder of the best. Alma mater to the elite. Nanny for the neglected. And—thanks to some poor choices I’d made my first week here—my hell away from home freshman, sophomore, and now junior year.
The Words You Say
Word choice conveys mood. You’d describe a church differently during a funeral than you would a wedding. The flowers and music and the actions of the people entering the pews would be completely opposite. Use power words to increase tension. Use calming words to diffuse tension.
Don’t open with a Children of the Corn setting, then write a light-hearted comedy. If your story isn’t horror or a mystery or a thriller, don’t write a spooky setting just because it sounds good. You’ll set your reader up with expectations you don’t plan to fulfill.
KEEP IT REAL
Know Your Geography
Unless you’re writing a futuristic, alternate-reality, or fantasy novel, it won’t be sunny and eighty-five degrees in Wisconsin in January. And you won’t be climbing a mountain in downtown Dallas.
Research. Act like you’re planning a vacation. Look at pictures, visit the city’s tourist websites, read about the climate. Even if you invent your own setting, make sure it gels with the geography and climate.
The Right Reaction
Your characters should react to the setting the way you’ve described it, unless you give them a reason not to. A former SEAL who survives a plane crash in the jungle is going to see and handle his unexpected setting differently than a thirteen-year-old boy on his first flight alone.
How your character reacts to setting tells the reader how to react. If you want your reader to be upset, your character needs to be upset. But remember to show, not tell.
Example: I make it as far as the great room before flashbacks rev my heart and slow my steps, kicking me into a mental spin of my last night here with Mom.
Splintered picture frames. Shattered glass. Broken lamps. Books thrown everywhere. My sister in the corner, hands over her ears in makeshift armor against Mom’s irrational rant. David and his sway-the-jury voice trying to talk Mom down. Me, frozen in the fallout, my world blasted into so many fragments there was no chance in hell I was ever getting my old life back.
I blink, and everything’s back in place. Mom’s paint-spatter art hangs on the wall in brand new frames. The contemporary lamps have been replaced. Her self-help books line the bookshelves.
Spotlight What’s Important
If you want something to stand out to the reader, it needs to stand out to your character. Shine a light on what you want us to know is important. At the same time, don’t point out what’s not important. If you spotlight something, readers will expect you to do something with it.
Example: We reach the thick, iron gates of The Oasis a century before I’m ready, and Jess stares out the window. This place is a lot to take in with its estate-like stucco buildings, golf-course lawn, patches of giant oaks, and the fancy pond that’s trying and failing to impersonate a lake.
Her gaze moves toward the gates as if she’s searching for a sign that will tell her where we are. She won’t find one. “This is where your mom lives?”
“For the last thirteen weeks, three days.” I rub my fist against what feels like a pair of spurred cowboy boots two-stepping across my chest.
(I’ve put this place in the spotlight. Which is great if it’s crucial to the story. You expect it to be. But if it’s just a place in passing, do you see how I’ve set you up for disappointment?)
DON’T BLANK OUT THE BACKGROUND
The background provides the backdrop for your setting. Characters aren’t usually alone in public places. Don’t forget to show us what’s going on around your character. This is also where your characters senses come into play. Think about smells, sounds, and the way things feel.
Example: In some cruel kind of karma, a slow, steady stream trickled behind Claire’s grave. The late afternoon service had ended fifteen minutes earlier, but people were still filing out of the rows of folding chairs under the royal blue canopy behind us, murmuring to each other.
Example: Donuts lined the kitchen counter. The smell of powdered sugar swelled into a phantom pastry that stuck in my throat. Swallowing hard, I turned away and went back upstairs.
Example: A breeze blew through the perfectly manicured trees dotting the landscape and raised an army of goosebumps on my arms.
Readers will assume it’s daytime if you don’t paint a picture that shows it’s not. They’ll also assume you’re in present time. Point out a different time period. If your story is set in the past, future, or in an alternate world, this is where worldbuilding begins. Description is crucial. Especially in your opening.
WEAVE DESCRIPTION INTO YOUR SCENE
Instead of information dumping, try weaving your setting into the action.
Example: I pull my ’69 mustang along the curb behind David’s boring black sedan. That’s where I lock my gaze. Not on the iron gates to my right or the sprawling estate behind them that could be a fancy bed-and-breakfast—but isn’t.
NOT ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH?
Use pacing to decide how much setting description you need. If Maddy’s running through the woods to get away from a clown with a machete, we’d expect description that’s short and choppy. If she’s walking into a famous cathedral she’s always wanted to visit, we’d expect longer, more descriptive prose.
Finally, keep in mind The Big Picture. Think like a reader. We can’t see the beautiful images you’ve crafted in your mind—unless you show us. Look with fresh eyes at what you might be missing. Did you mean to set your characters in a forest but forgot to write in the trees? Ask your critique partners or your beta readers if they really feel like they’re standing next to your characters.
Have any other setting ideas? Please share in the comments.
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can find Where You Belong, as well as her young adult and contemporary romance, at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently up on the Radish app. Download the app for free.