Archive for category: Writing exercises

It’s no secret that many creative types talk about walking inspiration — the magic that occurs during daily jaunts.

I love going for walks (it’s my main form of exercise). For some time, I’d trek around my huge apartment complex (four loops is just shy of two miles). I’d always find interesting things on my walk and post these these daily finds to Facebook. See the image below of CDs seemingly scattered in the wind.


Here’s another shot of a table sitting in a small wooded area dividing the parking lot and main thoroughfare.

table in woods

This past summer, I took my morning constitutionals around Callahan State Park, a lovely area about ten minutes away from me. Here’s a shot.

eagle pond

And here’s another:

purple road

Since the fall, however, I’ve taken to walking this long-ass hallway outside my apartment. (Due to issues with vertigo that began plaguing me at the end of the summer…I couldn’t drive for a while and was stuck at home.) It’s like the hallway from the movie The Shining. Minus the dead twins, of course.


But here’s the BIG surprise. I’ve done my most productive writing while traipsing up and down this hallway for 30 to 40 minutes at a stretch. Much more so than when I walk outside. Why is this? I think when I walk outside, I’m like that dog from the movie Up who gets distracted every time he sees a squirrel. But here in this nondescript hallway, I can think, since it’s just one brown door after another along a boring olive green print carpet.

It’s also convenient. As a writer, I spend too many hours sitting on my butt in front of my PC. But popping out into my hallway is EASY. It’s the perfect temperature, I don’t have to dodge cars and dog poop, and I can do it whenever.

I occasionally bump into neighbors. They’re getting used to seeing the strange chick who walks back and forth mumbling to herself. Yes, I’m THAT person. But I figure it’s better if they think I’m a little crazy. 😉 I always say hello with a cheerful smile.

Where do you work best?

I was reviewing some notes I scribbled on various legal pads (and envelopes and receipts and business cards) for the book I just finished writing.

One stream of consciousness went like this: Is this a story about depression? Does this character have a child? WTF am I doing????

Made me laugh.

Writers constantly struggle between two extremes: feeling they are ON, every word they write brilliant, and wondering WTF they’re doing. It’s normal. And probably healthy. Because if you spend too much time on either side, you’ll eventually nosedive.

The middle ground is where I’m at most days. Except for the day I wrote that line, apparently.

Disclaimer: I wrote this post in bits and spurts during my viewing of the entirety of Breaking Bad. Bottom line: I loved the pilot and season one. I stuck with it through seasons two and three, struggling a bit during season three. Seasons 4 and 5 exceeded my expectations and kept me riveted, mostly because the story had morphed into true thriller territory. The last couple episodes of the final season were brilliant, and the finale was the best one I can remember. I haven’t stopped thinking about Walt and company, which says a lot. I have a feeling I will watch this series again, and I’ll probably fall more in love with the earlier seasons as a result.

But my missive below has to do with character motivation, specifically Walt’s (or his lack thereof), which I DO have a problem with, on some level, even now. This isn’t meant to impugn the show, show runner Vince Gilligan, or the actors. It was an excellent series, deserving of its many accolades, and it’s definitely one to study. It’s for this reason I offer my critique. Which is just that: a critique. My own personal opinion.

Let’s get to it…

I finally signed up for Netflix and binged on Breaking Bad, the show EVERYONE kept saying is the best written show on television and one every writer needs to watch. (This hype may have affected my viewing.) It is very good and the acting and cinematography are impeccable. Bryan Cranston and company deserve all the accolades they received. But I still think The Wire beats it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I think my biggest beef with Breaking Bad is the motivation (or lack thereof) for the show’s main character, Walter White. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

For me, character motivation is everything. I can buy almost any situation a character ends up in, provided it makes sense to the character. (And if the situation is “out of character,” there needs to be a compelling reason for that as well.)

Walter White is incredibly unlikable, more so as each season advances. I have no problem with this, but I need to be able to understand the main character and, ideally, empathize with him on some level, even if he acts like a bastard from time to time (hello, Bill Masters in Masters of Sex) or a lot of the time (think Tony Soprano). I don’t need to like the character. But I need to understand where he or she is coming from, what motivates his or her decisions, why he or she acts in a certain way.

But Walt is so…hmm. How do I describe it? There’s a HUGE ego there. And arrogance. I have no problem with these character traits as long as I understand the evolution.

As far as I know, Walter is an only child (there’s no reference to siblings). It’s not until the 10th episode of season four (!) that he mentions his father, who died of Huntington’s disease when Walt was a child. And even then, we don’t get a sense of what that was like for Walt, how his childhood was affected, how (or if) he grieved, how close he was to his father, or what his father did for a living. Did the father leave his family destitute? If yes, THAT would explain SO much about Walt’s present-day character. Both Walt and Skyler allude to Walt’s mom being difficult. But what does that mean? Was she always like that?

The only things we know about Walt’s history:

  • His mother is still alive.
  • His father is dead (and died when Walt was a child), but this isn’t revealed until season 4
  • He’s brilliant.
  • He was in love with Gretchen.
  • Walt, Elliott, and Gretchen founded Gray Matter.
  • Gretchen jilted him for Elliott.
  • Walter left the company and took his shares, worth $5000.
  • The company today is worth billions (and, as a result, Walt wants an “empire” of his own — but we don’t learn this backstory until the final season, episode 6).
  • Walt woos Skyler — who is over ten years his junior — when she’s a hostess at a restaurant. She does crosswords, and Walt starts coming in when’s she there and does crosswords too.
  • Walt becomes a high school chem teacher.
  • He has to work two jobs to support his family.
  • The second pregnancy wasn’t planned.
  • The pilot episode shows a man on the cusp of a mid-life crisis.
  • When he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he’s freaked out about leaving his family with nothing, and he’s too proud to accept help.

OK…that last bullet point. I understand and accept the first part and can *sort* of understand the second. But it would be helpful to know more about who Walt is (as in, what’s the source of that pride?). I’m not talking a ton of backstory, either.

Take Jesse. We learn from a few deftly drawn scenes his situation with his family. He’s the disappointment. The kid who had everything but got involved with drugs and let his parents down. The parents love him but don’t know how to care for an addict. They have a second son and are DETERMINED to do it right this time. Jake (we only meet him in one episode) is the son of helicopter parents who make sure he’s pushing and challenging himself academically, musically, athletically. He’s a composed kid, although Jesse and the viewers discover Jake is experimenting with pot. The cycle continues. This was enough backstory to explain a whole helluva lot about who Jesse is.

Even Mike has a wonderful backstory moment that speaks volumes about him (when he explains to Walt how he used to be a cop and that he failed to protect a woman who was being beaten by her boyfriend…and that he’d never let a situation like that happen again). And, of course, we get the backstory on Gus as well — all in one scene.

But we never have these revealing moments with Walt.

And perhaps it wouldn’t bother me so much if it were just Walt. But four of the main characters have no backstory. We know nothing about Skyler beyond her desire to be a writer (the fact we never once see her writing, especially in the first season, bothers me). I’m assuming her parents are deceased because the show gives me no reason to believe otherwise. What sort of childhood did she and Marie have? What led Marie to become a kleptomaniac (something that’s never fully fleshed out)? And what about Hank? Are his parents deceased as well? Is he an only child, too? Again, just a little more insight into these characters’ backstories would help.

Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure Vince Gilligan knows their backstories. Most likely inside and out. I don’t need to know everything. Just a bit. (EDIT: I was wrong. Vince didn’t know Walt’s backstory, which explains a lot. He says in this interview, “When I think back on Breaking Bad, I realize that I didn’t really understand Walter White’s character until season four,” he says with a tinge of amazement.”

And this article from The New York Times is also quite revealing: “When Gilligan declined to fill in large holes in Walter’s back story, Cranston sat down and wrote out one of his own. On a handful of occasions, he has flagged lines in the script that felt false to him… When he can’t resolve the issue with the writer on the set that week, a call is placed to Gilligan, who is usually in the writer’s room in Burbank. ‘It’s up to them, but I won’t bend unless I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do,’ Cranston says. ‘Convince me and I’ll do it. I have a theory — our job isn’t to lie to the audience, our job is to find the truth in the character.'”

To wit: think about how much more fully formed Tony Soprano is to viewers (as well as his therapist) after we learn how Tony, as a young boy, witnessed his father chopping off someone’s fingers? Or how Bill Masters’ father was an abusive drunk, forcing Bill to leave the house at a young age and become a self-made man who is always in control?

These insights don’t excuse the often reprehensible actions these men take, but they inform me as to why they take the actions, which allows me to “buy” their character.

Breaking Bad opens on Walter White’s 50th birthday. There’s a half century of character backstory, 99% of which we never learn, and this proves problematic. The characters who resonate with me the most — Jesse, Mike, even Gus — have some powerful backstory moments that reveal the character’s motivation and how they became the people they are.

And that’s the thing: our histories shape us. I’m still struggling to understand the source of Walter’s rage. I feel it must go much deeper than a jilted heart or losing out on a billion-dollar company. We never get the sense that Walt settled for Skyler, and he appears to genuinely love Walt Jr. and Holly. So while he lost out on the money, he has a decent life — at least it appears that way. I’m OK with appearances being an illusion, which they apparently are, at least to some extent, for Walt. But that means I need to understand Walt’s inner turmoil. I enjoyed the pilot immensely. I “bought” Walt’s crazy idea to sell meth since he saw it as a quick way to get the cash for his family. But everything that happened after that — again, those rage-filled moments, like when he set that asshole guy’s car on fire at the gas station — I didn’t fully buy the pent-up rage. And I wanted to. I really did.

Walt is an incredibly selfish man. Everything that motivates him goes back to him. It’s never been about his family. It’s been about him, always him (something he owns up to in the final episode, although viewers — at least, this viewer — made this realization long before Walt ever did).

Examples of this selfishness:

  • When Walt tells Junior about Walt’s last image of his father on his deathbed, he goes on to tell Junior he doesn’t want Junior to see Walt like that. Again, that goes back to WALT’S need, not his son’s.
  • When Walt lets Jane die, he doesn’t do it for Jesse, although it might look like that at first blush (e.g. knowing that if Jesse stayed with Jane, they would both end up dead). But Walt’s real motivation was the fact he needed Jesse. Again, it comes back to what’s good for Walt.

I have no problem with a selfish character. But what made this mild-mannered guy from the pilot episode transform into the completely selfish prick that he is by the final season? A cancer diagnosis doesn’t do it. And the “life of crime” that follows doesn’t do it either (I DO think the timeline in Breaking Bad is a stretch, but it’s fiction, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for things like that). So what does do it? We don’t ever know. And that’s the missing piece — a BIG piece.

Anyhow, those are my thoughts. If you got this far, thanks for reading. And feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

I don’t know about you, but awesome books turn me on. No, not in that way (OK, maybe sometimes). What I mean is awesome books get me excited to get back to the page — my pages — and start writing.

I have two distinct memories from my adolescence when I learned this lesson. The first time, I was in grammar school, probably third or fourth grade (but it could have been later). I’d just read Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt.” It was unlike any short story that I’d read before, and it made me want to write short stories that took people’s breath away and kept them on the edge of their seats.

The second time was in high school. I’d just read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for AP English during my senior year of high school (hello, 1991!). I immediately fell in love with Atwood’s style and story as my classmates and I tried to figure out what was going on in this crazy world she’d created. I enjoyed the book so much that it felt wrong, somehow, that we were reading it for English class.

What a commentary, huh? I’m all for reading the classics, but I think that there should be a balance between pieces from the cannon and pieces from today. I certainly didn’t appreciate all the cannon fodder back when I was
sixteen and seventeen, but I loved reading stories with plots that felt relevant to me. My sense is that English classes today, at least the classes I hear about around here in the Northeast, are finding the right balance, which is a good thing. Not to mention the explosion of awesome young adult fiction that’s out there.

But back to my point regarding inspiration for writers: if you need some, go find a book that you can get lost in. And don’t give up if the first (or second or third) book you pick up doesn’t do it for you. Keep trying until you find that story — that author — who gets you so excited about stories that you can’t WAIT to get back to your pages. (And this is true of great TV and film. There’s SO much good TV out there, and we writers can learn a lot and get inspired by these stories as well.)

What are some books that have inspired you along the way?

I mentioned to a friend that my novel could be facing more “gutting” ahead, my word for revising and editing.

He wrote back, “It sounds astonishing that after three revisions you could still get it gutted and have an enormous pile of work to do again. Are you feeling positive about it?”

Here’s how I responded: Think of it like a house you just bought. You love the house. It has a sturdy foundation. And you know there’s so much potential with it. But as you move in and decide how to move forward with it, you might decide, “Hmm. If we knock out a wall here, that will make for much easier access between the kitchen and living room.” Or “I really hate this carpet, but if we rip it up and put in white oak pine floors, that will really make a difference.” And so forth.

That’s where I feel I’m at right now. Moving forward, I’ll be focusing on that “interior” stuff—knocking down walls, trying different paint colors, rethinking layouts, and so forth.

And three drafts is nothing (at least, for some writers). Of course, there are also writers like Lee Child who write only one draft.

Luckily, I’m one of those writers who loves revising. I’m not sure I’ve always been like this. But as challenging as some of these revisions have been (a year ago was tough), I’ve loved watching this book shape up and get closer and closer to where it should be. These last two revisions went really fast, which tells me I’m on the right track.

Getting rid of word turds is a big part of my revision process. Because, let’s face it: word turds can stink up your writing. Think flabby, unnecessary words like “very” and “just.” Think overused directional words like “glanced” and “looked.” Think of your own word crutches.

For one of my earlier books, I overused the word “shiver.” I mean, everyone shivered at some point in the story (the whole mystery thingie), and sometimes multiple times. For my current book, I recently caught on to words like “burst” (e.g. he “burst” into the room) and “exhausted.” Nothing is wrong with those words per se. In fact, “burst” is a great action verb, but how much bursting can people do in one book? Too much bursting and you go from apt word choice to word turd.

After doing the “big gutting” — rewriting whole sections, diving deeper into characters, reviewing and revising for pacing and form — I always go through my word turds. I have a running list of over 100 words that I overuse as I draft. There’s a picture of it below, coffee-stained and doodled on. (And I’m sure there are more than 100. I’m constantly adding to the list when a new word turd reveals itself to me.)


Why do I do this? Well, words matter. I realize this isn’t a revelation. I mean, I’m writing a novel, after all, so of course the words matter. But they matter in ways so many of us don’t even realize as we’re reading. Words affect rhythm. Mood. Character. (One of the biggest challenges I face when writing a novel from multiple viewpoints is making sure the different character voices actually sound different.) And it’s amazing how the overuse of a word can affect the reading.

A few years ago, I read a book where the main character “scowled” so much that was all I could see. The word “scowled” became such a distraction, I even stopped reading at one point to flip back and count how many scowls had been used. It’s the main thing I remember now about the story. (And this was a traditionally published book.) The editor should have caught that because we’re talking excessive use.

Anyhow, my word turd list forces me to exorcise many unnecessary words and it often forces me to re-think and re-cast chunks of text.

Here’s my process:

I put a word, like “glance,” into the “find” function in Word. This immediately brings up a left-hand sidebar with all the instances of the word “glance.” (Actually, for a word like glance, I’d enter “glanc” into Word, since that would picked up the words glance, glanced, and glancing.) See the screen shot below. And, no. This isn’t the new book. 🙂 (It’s from Granite Creek.)


From there, I go through each instance of the word. I read what’s around it. Reading out of context is great because it forces me to catch things I might miss if I were simply reading forwards. Sometimes the word stays. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it stays, but I completely gut the section and make it stronger.

I do this for each word on the list.

By the time I’m done, the writing is much tighter. During my most recent Word Turd Exorcism, I lost over 1000 words from the manuscript (and the manuscript was short to begin with, 62,000 words). Everything got a lot tighter, a lot smoother.

There you have it. So tell me, fellow scribblers: what are some of your own common word turds? Share in the comments. (No judging!)

Shout out to all the folks participating in National Novel Writing Month this month, more affectionately known as NaNoWriMo‬.

The goal? Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I did NaNo back in 2004. Got the T-shirt to prove it, which I still wear proudly (it always garners many curious stares at the local Stop ‘n Shop).

I consider NaNo a major turning point in my life as a writer. When I did it, I finally gave myself permission to…

  1. Write forward. Up until that point, I was spending WAY too much time trying to perfect the first 10-20 pages instead of just getting the darn thing drafted.
  2. Write crap. A lot of crap. Knowing I could go back and fix it.
  3. Put my writing first. If you want to write 50,000 words in a month, then you need to say no to many things, like TV, navel-gazing, and generalized procrastination, all of which I excel at.
  4. Be gentle if I didn’t quite make my word count one day.
  5. Be happy when I did.
  6. Keep going, no matter what.

For all you writers out there, go get ’em. And for those living with someone doing NaNo, be supportive by offering lots of chocolate and coffee. And plenty of praise and wine on 12/1.

A month ago, I had coffee with a friend and fellow writer. We swapped updates on our works-in-progress. I explained how the current section I was working on had frustrated me for the longest time because it took me forever to figure out how to structure it, but that once I had, the writing went fast.

My friend wanted to know if I was writing this section in the same Word doc as the rest of my novel, or if I’d isolated it into its own Word doc. I told her that I’d isolated it into its own Word doc FOUR separate times. For the first three, I thought I’d figured it out each time, only to discover I hadn’t. These docs were labeled innocuous things like “Eleanor – 1” and “Eleanor – deux” and “Eleanor – part trois,” just so I could keep all the different versions clear in case I needed to go back to them. (Eleanor is the name of the character telling the story in this section of the book.) By the time I hit another wall with “part trois,” I became so frustrated that I opened up a new Word doc and named it GODDAMN ELEANOR.

Yes, in caps.

Then, the breakthrough came. Coincidence? I think not. Sometimes you need to get angry. I think it sends a message to your subconscious that you’re serious so no more farting around.

A fellow writer/fan emailed me this question a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d share my answer here:

QUESTION: How do you manage to keep the writing momentum going while also working full time? That’s what I struggle the most with these past couple of months. I haven’t been writing on a regular basis for a long time… This is sad. To be honest, I’m in a slump! Work (professionally speaking) drains me. Family life keeps me really busy. There’s also the house to look after, the walks with the dog (they’re fun, though), our social activities, etc. Argh. It’s really hard to find some quality time to write. Usually I do it late at night, but recently I have been “brain-dead”and have been watching movies instead… Procrastination and lack of discipline seem to be my best buddies. How do you do it Robyn, I mean, how do you keep writing regularly without losing the momentum?

I really need to kick myself in the butt!

MY ANSWER: Ah, you ask a good question, my friend. And I definitely struggle with it. This past summer, I found myself putting my creative work last on the list, which was NOT a good thing for me to do. So back on August 19, I started my disciplined “boot camp,” as I call it. Up at 5am every day. I work on the novel from 5am to 7am. Then I work out, shower, get dressed and face my “second” work day (the one that pays the majority of the bills at the moment). When I’m lucky, I get to work on the novel some more in the afternoon. But that’s gravy. The 5am to 7am is a must.

I think it’s just a matter of discipline. Kinda like training for a marathon. You just need to put in the reps. So my suggestion would be this: could you get up even 30 minutes earlier than you are now and write? Maybe not every day of the week–even 30 minutes of writing three days a week will add up. If that’s not doable, what about your lunch hour (do you get an hour)? Could you bring your lunch to work and then close the door (or go some place with a door) and write for 30 minutes?

Once you get back into a rhythm, you’ll probably find that you’re eager to get back to the page…and then you’ll be creating all sorts of time for the writing. I find that happens with me, especially when I’m deep into a work, as I am now.

Guess what?

I’m working on my third novel, back to putting in a minimum of 1000 words a day.

I’ve found a new rhythm that’s working quite well: I get up at 6:00 a.m. and go for a walk, about a mile. Come back, make coffee, sit down, and continue with my work-in-progress. I do all this BEFORE looking at email and BEFORE checking reviews, Amazon ranking, etc. This is key. It’s easy to get lost in some of that stuff.

I can crank out 1000 fairly polished words in two hours max — and this includes room for coffee refills and staring off into space and thinking, which qualifies as work, since the brain is still firing, and the images from the story still moving in my head.

What’s great about this method, for me, is that I can start the rest of my day around 9:00 along with the rest of world and not feel any resentment since I’ve gotten my pages in. I’m heading towards phasing out my copywriting business by the end of the year (if not before), but I still maintain a few clients right now during this transitional time, clients who deserve my full attention since they’re paying me good money to give it my all.

Luckily, because my client list is smaller now, I have room for the marketing of my creative writing “business” (selling books is a business) and, often, extra time to put in another healthy dose of words to the WIP.

Or not.

That’s key, too. Anything extra that goes above and beyond the 1000 words a day is great, but not required since I believe a big part of life has to be left for living: reading, exploring, going to movies and museums, having lunch with friends, spending time with family, sitting quietly on my balcony with a cup of coffee or tea or cocktail and listening to the wind, to the old man in my building who walks his little dog named Maggie in the parking lot below my veranda, to the birds and other critters in the woods across the way.

I love this time, when the work is so new and surprising, when the characters come alive before my eyes at the behest of my fingertips on the keyboard. I’m not sure if this will be the “it” novel; I started two different works in between Forgotten April and What Happened in Granite Creek, but I’m thinking it is. I don’t do a formal outline, but I guess I have a mental one. I have to sit with an idea for a bit, a skeleton plot forming, since I’m one of those writers who needs a destination to write towards, even if it changes along the way. But this “marinating” time makes for easy writing when I finally sit down to draft, the words and story tumbling forth.

Every day, I give several prayers of thanks, so grateful that I get to do this for a living.

Tell me, do you have a rhythm method for the work you do?

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