From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing a Novel: Outline Versus Vamp

I'm about done with chapter 3 of my novel and so I've been thinking about method lately. Here's what I've done so far: in the very beginning I did a very, very general outline, basically a one-sentence or short paragraph summary of what happens in each chapter. Then I've been taking it chapter by chapter, including the parts I've outlined for each one and sort of vamping the rest. The thing is, though the vamping is fun, I'm finding that I wish I'd done a more extensive outline.

I know some writers do pages and pages of outlining, and others just have a first sentence and go from their, letting the story go as it may. What do you do? More specifically, what is it like, following your own method? If you vamp the whole time, how do you know its working, where do you come up with ideas for the next scene, etc? If you do extensive outlining, what format do you do it in, how specific do you get?

Any advice, input you have about your own novel-developmental ideas, would be great. What works for you? I'd love some specific ideas.

Thanks and happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Things That Make Me Happy

Here are just some things that I enjoy, that make me happy, and that I recommend to you for your own enjoyment. Mostly things from the week. This may become a recurring thing for Sundays, we'll see. Anyway, here are some wonderful things:

The Avett Brothers. Particularly the album 'I and Love and You' and the song of the same name.

The absolute attractiveness, manliness and all around yumminess of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp in 'The Sound of Music.' Also Julie Andrews in general, and how pure awesome she is. She is kind of the definition of awesome.

My brothers new little kitten, a long-haired grey little thing named Jasper.

My neighbors who just came over to ask if they could borrow our two biggest mixing bowls, and then brought them back two minutes later filled with popcorn.

Victorian novels. Little Dorrit and Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Middlemarch by George Elliot. Villette and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This may also be a recurring theme.

The fact that this blogs visitation rate is higher than its ever been. Thank you all for that.

Anyway, hope these things bring you some joy too, even just vicariously. What are the happy things of your week? I would absolutely love to know.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting Stuck in My Head/Not Going Stir Crazy

So, there are a couple of quirky weird challenges that come up pretty much every day I sit down and do some serious writing. After a few hours I feel like two things happen-sometimes one or the other, sometimes both-and they're kind of related.

One thing that sometimes happens is that I feel like I get stuck in my head, and by that I feel like I get in this sort of monotone, bland rut. I feel like I lose any uniqueness and excitement in my voice and start feeling like everything is starting to sound the same.

The other thing is that I feel like if I don't see the face of another human being I might go crazy. Probably not a good issue to have as a writer, but it happens. I feel like I've been sitting by myself for too long and need to shake myself up a bit.

I may be the only one with these problems. (If you have them too, please comment so I know I'm not alone :). But here are some things that work for me to get rid of these congested feelings:

Reading. This helps a lot especially when I feel like I'm getting stuck in my own head. All I need to do is listen to someone else for a while and it blows a fresh breeze through things. What I've actually been reading for this lately is the 20 under 40 New Yorker short story collection, and that has been great. Lots of fresh voices there.

Get outside. Just go out, look at the sun, jump on the tramp, see if you can see some faces.

Exercise. Go to the gym. Walk the dog. Do jumping jacks.

Eat. Get some lunch. Give yourself some brain food.

Anyway, these things sort of help me in this situation, but what are your ideas? The more ideas the better, because then they don't get old. What do you do to shake things up when you feel stuck? Do you feel stuck, and what does that feel like for you?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In the room where I am writing

For me, I like to sit on my bed with my laptop on my lap. I use Microsoft Word, and I write in Times New Roman, 12 pt font, single spaced. I know a lot of people feel that font restrictive, but I kind of feel distracted by any other. I don't like the quiet, but music with words is too distracting for me, so I listen to classical, movie soundtracks, instrumental jazz, ambiance or nature sounds. The last two are more recent, most often its movie scores. I hate jeans, so I wear sweat pants, at least until I have to go out in public. My room isn't particularly organized, but its not trashed either, and I've got a big bookshelf right in front of me.

So what about you? I am fascinated by the different processes writers have for getting settled. Where do you sit? What is the room like? What word processor do you use? Do you listen to music, and if so what kind? Do you have specific clothes you wear or a specific drink you have next to you on the desk? Do you have windows, pictures, bookshelves, etc that you use to buoy you up?

I think learning about the process of other writers helps, because it allows us to feel that we're not alone, plus gives us ideas that may work for us. So, in short, what is it like in the room where you are writing?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Re-post: Creative Writing Title Ideas

For me, titling is one of my favorite parts of a piece. Its a very intuitive process, and what works for me may not work for you, but there are certain things that may help everyone. And remember, writing down prospective titles in the back of your creative writing notebook is a great thing to do. Remember to make your title match your piece. You don't want false advertising. Let your title hint at the issues in your piece, but don't give everything away. There are no real rules for titling, so do what works for you. But just as a starting point, here are some "formulas" that may give you some ideas:

-'The Noun' or One Word titles: The Mask, The Notebook, The Road, The Stand, Macbeth, Les Miserables, Twilight, Frasier, Lost

-Pairing: (if you pair quirky things this can be pretty fun) Guns 'n Roses, Cats and Dogs, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

-Person and Phrase: Dan in Real Life, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends

-Known Phrase: Gone With the Wind, Alls Well that Ends Well, Walk Two Moons

-Word + Qualifier: Star Wars, Happy Feet, Star Trek, Silent Spring

-Verb(noun) + Phrase: Running out of Time, Interview with a Vampire, Touching Spirit Bear, Pushing Daisies

Anyway, those are just some basic ideas that may help, and here's just a random list of titles from the back of my notebooks that you can steal/use to get your own ideas:

-I Love You, Take a Right
-Your Whole Death Ahead of You
-In Between Raindrops
-Dissonant Peace
-Pickled Down
-Dead of 87
-This Narrative Woman
-Bad Luck and Trout
-On Nosebleeds
-Out of Canola Oil
-How the Palmers Saved Christmas

Hope this helps, and happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Monday, January 24, 2011

National Geographic Magazine as Creative Inspiration

I have a stack of about fifty National Geographic magazines that I've accumulated over the years and never really had a chance to dig into until now. I've been surprised at how creatively inspiring I have found it. The writing in the magazine is wonderful in and of itself, and the information and ideas have presented story ideas to me more often then I thought they would. For example, I recently read an article about Armenian diaspora, and I imagined a story about an American Armenian going on a pilgrimage to Mount Ararat. I'm not sure I'll ever use that idea, or how I would go about writing it, but I wrote it down as well as other ideas I've gotten from National Geographic.

I believe its possible to get creative inspiration from nearly anywhere, but this is a specific source that I really like. There is a reason National Geographic is such a long-lived, successful magazine. The articles are inspiring, well-written and thought-provoking, which is just awesome. In short, this is just a plug for National Geographic as a source for inspiration and ideas. What are some specific places you find creative inspiration?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reading While You Write

I have a question for you all and it is this: When you're writing the first draft of a novel, how do you pick your reading material as compared to what you are writing? So, for example, if you're writing in third person do you think it makes a difference whether you read a third of first person book? Do you read in the same genre you are writing in, or consciously read outside the genre? Things like that.

Right now I am reading 'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson, an astonishingly beautiful book. I'm hoping to imbibe some of the beauty of Robinson's sentences in my own writing. I am writing in third person, though, so reading in first person is a bit jarring. Hopefully in a good way.

What writers have influenced you in your own writing? Its odd to think about, in a way. I think everything we read influences us in some way, but I bet there are a handful of writers that each of us sort of claim as our own and really learn from. For me, my favorite kinds of stories come from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, perhaps also Charles Dickens, my favorite voice and tone comes from Amy Tan, Stephen King, Connie Willis, and Orson Scott Card. I love, love the romance and emotional grip of the Austen and Bronte stories, and I love the honesty, plainness, detail and grittiness of the voice and tone of the other writers. What about for you?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Writer Spotlight: Picture book writer/illustrators Don and Audrey Wood

I wanted to take a minute and recognize some of the best, if not THE best creators of picture books working today. Don and Audrey Wood create delightful, beautiful books with the most stunning illustrations I have seen in any book. I read the Wood's books as a child, as have my younger siblings. Even if I never have children of my own, I plan on owning at least two of their incredible books: Heckedy Peg, a beautiful story about a mother of seven children named for the days of the week, and Piggies, a picture book about the piggies on our fingers that has the delightful, awe-inspiring illustrations I mentioned.

You may already be familiar with the Woods and these books, but if not, acquaint yourself. Whether you have children or not. You won't regret it.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creative Inspiration: Mind, Body and Relationships

I'd like to get a little philosophical for a bit. I cannot take the credit for these ideas, but I have permission to discuss them and I think they are interesting and useful.

One of the big philosophical issues that writers deal with is how we as writers can receive creative inspiration, and also how we can make our writing inspiring to readers. Nurturing our minds, bodies and relationships in certain key ways I really think can help us in our efforts to achieve that level of inspiration in ways that might surprise us.

Body: It's not that writing a novel takes being in Olympic-athlete shape. But how we treat our bodies has a huge impact on our thoughts and emotions, and therefore I think it has a hugely significant influence on our writing ability. I think our bodies can help or hinder our ability to receive inspiration, depending on what we put in them.
-LETHAL: Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, anything addictive, etc. These things can not only be literally lethal, but lethal to your ability to get creative inspiration. They take over.
-EMPTY: Refined foods, soda, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love my cheesecake and diet Dr. Pepper. Not that in reasonable doses these foods are super damaging, but they don't do much good either.
-VITAL: Fruit, veggies, whole grains, herbs, excercize, etc. The classic good foods. When you eat healthily and treat your body well, you feel good and your body isn't so clogged with junk it can't think straight. Not only that, but when you're feeding your body what it needs it works better, faster and more efficiently, including our ability to receive inspiration.

Mind: Treating our minds right is clearly and directly influential to our ability to receive inspiration. What we put in our minds is as important, if not more so, than what we put in our body.
-LETHAL: Pornography, gambling, anything addictive or exploitive, etc. These things can completely overtake your mind, and I don't think there is anything more detrimental to receiving inspiration.
-EMPTY: "Hypnotizing" media, gaming, "art" with no real value that doesn't get you thinking, etc. This one is a little harder to pin down, and I believe it is more individual. Its the things that make you sit on the couch for hours, couch potato and brain candy stuff. Whatever that is for you. Again, not that these things are really going to hurt you terribly, but they're certainly not going to help either. I think a lot of people get stuck here.
-VITAL: The best books, music, cinema, visual arts, etc. Again, this can be personal, but there are certain touch-stone artists: Shakespeare, Bach, Van Gogh, Meryl Streep. There can be nothing more inspiring than great art, and it can make you happy, poignant and excited about life. At least thats what it does for me. Immerse yourself, it is the best creative medicine.

Relationships: While the mind and body are more focused on how writers can receive inspiration, this last category is more focused on how we writers can give it. To me, that aspect of writing is incredibly important. I think thats why most of us write, because we want to inspire readers. Building relationships and connections with the people around us can help us further our understanding of humanity, which is what writers are trying to do anyway, right?
-LETHAL: Any exploitive behavior. I doubt most of us have issues with this area; not many of us are going out murdering, thieving, or otherwise pillaging. Maybe what we writers can do is to try to comprehend even a little why this kind of behavior happens, what kind of people end up doing these things and what we can do to help stop it.
-EMPTY: Self-absorbed, ignorant behavior. Ignoring other peoples needs, making assumptions. This is disturbingly easy to do, I think. Again, you're probably not really hurting anyone, at least significantly or long-term, but not helping either.
-VITAL: Charity, service, understanding. Start with your immediate world, your family and close friends. Family can be the hardest, but is the most important to understand. It is incredibly unfortunate how many broken families there are, and I feel so lucky that my family is so close. I think every family is probably dysfunctional on some level, but that is different than broken. Then there are much wider issues. Pick a way to help society in general, donate to charities, volunteer at your local animal shelter. Do something. I believe this can be one of the most eye-opening, inspiring experiences anyone can have.

Anyway, thank you for letting me wax philosophical, maybe a bit sentimental. I know these are generalities, but I believe they can help. I'd love to know what you think.

Sarah Allen

Friday, January 7, 2011

Three Questions about Timing in a Creative Writers Life

Its a new year and I've just graduated, so I'm sort of in a new phase of life right now, with a new set of challenges. A lot of them involve how to manage my time, balancing the new things I have to do and my writing. I know for sure that every writer has timing challenges, but I think what makes the difference is that we look at them as just that, challenges, and not as excuses to not write. So here are my timing challenges, which I'm sure are not unique to me, and if you have any suggestions for how to work with these time constraints, I'd love to hear it.

-Lots of car time: When you spend a lot of time driving, how can you still be productive behind the wheel? The ideal would be to write while your driving, but I don't think thats quite possible. Some ideas I've heard are brain-storming, idea storming with the radio, and listening to writing podcasts or audio-books. Any other suggestions? Can anyone think of any way to get actual writing done while your driving? Like I said, probably not possible, but any ideas would be great.

-Time blips: This is a challenge I know lots of writers face. Its the challenge of being constantly called away and having random things to do throughout the day that leave you only short blips of writing time. I don't know about you, but its hard for me to get back in the groove once I've been called away. I've been working on it, but its still easier for me to get actual writing done when I have a bigger chunk of time. Suggestions with what to do with the blips? My ideas are blogging, facebook/twitter and other internet marketing, submitting pieces to magazines and picking up a poetry or short story collection. Your ideas?

-Going stir-crazy without people: This is sort of the opposite challenge to the one above, but as ironic as it might sound, I'm definitely experiencing both. Its like during the day I can't find any significant amount of time to sit down and get done what I want to get done, but then at night when everything's calmed down and I have a long time by myself I start to get antsy and want to talk to someone. I think this is probably a personality thing, and the fact that my preferred daily schedule is to get up and get the chores-type stuff done, spend a few hours writing, and then have the night free for more fun stuff, so having to do my writing at night kind of rubs that schedule the wrong way (although I DO get my writing done. I try to get it done any time I can.) Anyway, sorry about the long spiel, but does anyone have any ideas about what to do with this little problem?

Sarah Allen

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year for Writing

Happy New Year everyone! This year is going to be a pretty big year for me. I graduated in December, so there are some pretty important steps I'm taking this year: I'm officially moving out on my own. I've been in my own apartment in Provo while I go to BYU, but when I move it will be the first time I'm really away from my family. I'll be getting a real job. Hopefully, considering the economy. I've been working for a professor at BYU part-time, but I'll be doing whatever I can to find a good full-time job to support my writing habit. And last but not least, I'll be getting ready to apply to graduate school. My plan is to move to Eugene, Oregon, because my top choice for graduate school is the University of Oregon. Its number 8 in the nation, studio based two year program that provides teaching positions and graduate tuition wavers. Exactly what I want. I also plan on applying for the University of Wyoming and Washington University in St. Louis for the same reasons. I will apply to these programs a year from now. The University of Oregon had over 720 applicants last year and accepts 12, so my chances are next to nothing, but I have and will have a writing sample that I am proud of and a willingness to work hard and learn fast. So if I don't get accepted, which I almost definitely won't, that only means I work on writing on my own and apply again next year. That is the plan, anyway. Thank you for indulging my personal spiel of a post, but I hope you can get understanding or at least a sense of kindred struggles from my personal writerly journey.

What are your writing goals for the new year? I plan on applying for the MFA programs like I said, and working on creating new pieces and carefully editing existing ones in preparation for that. I also have a novel thats almost ready to advance from the planning stages and I plan to finish that this year, hopefully as soon as this summer. We'll see how that goes.

Again, I'd love to know what your writing goals are for the year, if you have any. If you don't but want ideas, here are some:
-Set a certain daily word count (1000 is a good rule of thumb)
-Write a certain number of short stories or poems
-Submit to a certain number of magazines
-Submit your novel to a certain number of agents/editors
-Finish existing projects
-Start an online marketing campaign

I hope this can be of some use to you all. Make 2011 your best writing year yet. I don't mean that in a pep-talky kind of way, I mean it in a you really can do it if you work your butt off and sometimes it will be incredibly difficult but if you stick with it you really can accomplish what you want to kind of way. Go for it, even if its scary, and I hope you let me know about all your wins, misses and other adventures in writing.
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