Inspiration Station: The Value of Artistic Detours

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

I had a pleasantly chatty cab driver during a recent trip to the airport. He’s a painter who drives to pay the bills, and he told me about his artistic inspirations and growing interest in using metal as a canvas. I shared the premise of my latest novel and the characters who drive it.

“I used to write too,” he said. “I still think of poems every now and then. But at some point, I guess you have to choose.”

To some extent, he’s completely right: there are only so many hours in a day, after all, and gaining expertise in anything requires immense dedication, so you’d better choose your investment wisely.

And yet.

I went to a combined middle and high school focused on both academics and the arts. There, I was surrounded by people who, at age fourteen, were better painters than I will ever be. I personally focused on film photography, but my graduation requirements included classes in sculpture and painting. I also voluntarily participated in orchestra and—surprising me most of all—an intro-level drama class. At this school, even our “traditional” history and English classes often incorporated video, live sketches, or creative writing into assignments. Each of these art forms pushed me to think in nuanced ways about objects and perspective, color and sound, movement and light. Doing so improved my photographic eye at the time and, in the years since, has come to fundamentally shape my writing.

I only use my camera once or twice a year now, so I suppose I also chose one particular creative path. But I constantly draw on the lessons I learned through exploring other disciplines. They each changed my perspective and continue to reveal new worlds for my characters to explore. And why not? One of the first things we learn in crafting characters is to give them things—often multiple things—to be passionate about. This informs a character’s motivations but, more importantly, gives us the specific lens through which they see the world.

Writing may have been the path I committed myself to, but I know I can be more intentional about taking artistic detours. I may not have the hours to explore that I did in high school, but I can carve out a few minutes at a time to keep the road more interesting and my creative well more full.

As we reached O’Hare, my newfound artistic pal and I wished each other luck. He told me he planned to write a new poem, and I promised to take my camera out for a spin.

I hope, reader, that you’ll join us in embracing the scenic route.

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: A Writer’s Guide to the New Year

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

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As we head into the last few weeks of 2017, I’m here with a quick activity to help put your writing year in perspective before we hurdle into a brand new one.

When I feel at a crossroads in my professional life, I use a similar process to think through my accomplishments and goals, and the guide can be adapted to reflect on anything else that’s important to you. The goal is to take some time to quiet any voices of self-doubt, acknowledge your accomplishments, and set the stage for what comes next.

1. Prepare your space.

Put on some relaxing music, pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage, maybe even set out a small snack tray. Grab a notebook and your favorite pen. This should be a fun activity rather than a daunting one! And be sure you have at least 90 uninterrupted minutes: no need to feel frazzled for something so important.

2. Set a timer for seven minutes. Write down your “shoulds.”

“Don’t should yourself,” one mentor used to tell me. She meant that dwelling on the things I wished I’d done better or the things I wished I’d said wouldn’t help me undo the past—but would certainly make me feel worse. While the core of that message is true, sometimes it’s healthy to get out a little heartache so it doesn’t niggle at the back of your mind. So indulge for a few minutes by recording all of your “shoulds.” I should’ve read more books. I should’ve gotten up at six a.m. to write every day. I should’ve been published by now.

3. Now shake it off. Take a breath. Set your timer for 45 minutes and fill in this list:

  • Write down every writing project you started, even if you didn’t finish. Revisions count too. Take some time to fill out these bullets by describing what you enjoyed about these projects, what you learned, and what you think you did really well.
  • Write down every trip you took, and how it enriched your life. Maybe you had a fantastic vacation and learned about Italian history. Maybe you visited family, and they reminded you of little moments that truly matter. Or maybe you didn’t travel much this year, but you did have a fantastic summer day on the beach of your local lake. These are the moments that help make up our memories and that contribute to our writing.
  • Write down every book you read, and follow it with a note for any podcast, article, movie, or poem that has stuck with you, too. For me, reading is one of the first things to go when my schedule fills up, and then I beat myself up for reading so little—but an exercise like this helps me realize that I’ve actually consumed many perspectives over the year (and, often, that I’ve read more than I realized).
  • Write down anything else that contributed to your writing life. Note the queries you submitted, the research you completed, the conferences you attended, the contests you applied for. No matter the outcome, it takes courage to put yourself out there, and you deserve to recognize yourself for it.
  • Write down the communities you participated in and how. Writing can feel very isolating, but we often have more support systems than we realize. Take some time to remember your brunches with writing friends (shout out to the ChiYA community!), any manuscripts or query letters you helped a friend hone, and any online communities you’ve contributed to or felt supported by this year.
  • Write down any other accomplishments that come to mind. Once you get started, your writing mind often takes over: indulge it. If there’s anything else you feel proud of doing this year, take some time to note it. Maybe a project went well at work or you made the best pie of your life. If you’re remembering it now, it’s meaningful enough to make the list.

Your timer may have gone off by now. If you’re on a roll and have the time, turn it off and keep going. Just don’t let yourself stop before it rings.

4. Take some time to reflect.

Revel in the knowledge that you did a lot this year—probably far more than you realized before you started this session. Be kind to yourself as you consider all of the things you managed to fit into 365 days, in addition to feeding yourself and occasionally doing dishes. This is also a good time for a ritualistic trashing of your “should” list. After all, look at everything you actually did do! That means far more than your eccentric inner perfectionist.

5. Jot down 1-3 goals for 2018.

Make them achievable but ambitious. And make them while knowing that this time next year, they might be on your “should” list, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And that certainly doesn’t mean you won’t achieve a hundred other amazing things.

6. Take some time for yourself.

Finish your beverage. Take a walk to clear your head, or do some gentle stretches, or write a letter to your future self if you’re into that sort of thing. Just don’t plunge right back into daily life: let your mind wander and let all the words on all those pages be enough.

The truth is, the writing road is long and filled with pitfalls. Every journey is different, and it’s so easy to gloss over the things we do every day to reach our goals when we only get the highlights from other people. I hope that regardless of how many goals you think you’ve accomplished or missed in 2017, this exercise will help you be kind to yourself as you reflect and set goals for the year ahead.

From all of us at ChiYA, may the rest of your December be restful, and may 2018 overflow with good news and grand adventures.

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

Finding the Write Place: Chicago Athletic Association Hotel

Finding the Write Place is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that highlights some of our favorite places to write here in the Windy City.

Chicago Athletic Association Lobby

12 S Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603
Open 24 hours, small bites menu & beverage service begins 11a.m. The Milk Room serves coffee and pastries beginning at 7a.m. that you can bring to your table.

(Hours subject to change. Check the hotel’s website for up-to-date info)

Noise level: Quiet in the morning, but fills up and gets noisier throughout the day and best for those who don’t mind activity around them or wearing headphones. Music generally unobtrusive and varies–seasonal, 80s, etc.

Availability of space: Wide variety of seating, again, more available during the morning hours. There is one library-style table with outlets that seats 10 as well as small round tables that seat 2 along the windows. Large chairs and sofas are grouped together throughout the lobby and seating by the three fireplaces is always popular. On a Sunday afternoon, three of us were able to find spots at the library table.

Bathrooms: Yes (but hard to find–ask the front desk or a member of the wait staff)

Food: Yes! There is a small bites and drinks menu. The hotel also has a number of places to eat–including a Shake Shack on the ground floor and the Game Room next door to the lobby that you can step away to.

Wifi: Free

Outlets: Yes at the long table and some along the walls by the small round deuce tables.

When you enter the hotel, head up the stairs on the right of the ground floor entrance and you’ll be transported to old Chicago as you arrive in the lobby of the hotel. I love writing at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. In fact, I wrote and revised a large chunk of my debut novel here. It’s perfect for folks who want to feel like they are writing in a Hogwarts common room or love a clubby feel amidst beautifully preserved gothic architecture. Also excellent for those who want to treat themselves to a cocktail after they hit the day’s word count.

Great for small groups or for solo writers . This is one of ChiYA’s favorite haunts. And the hotel holiday decoration game is on point (and excellent for selfies). They even serve glögg.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: 3 Online Things Writers Can Do For Inspiration

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

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Last time, I chatted about things you can do offline for inspiration. But what if you’re more disciplined than I am? What if you tried all those and you’re still struggling? What if you just prefer the tech life over the analog life? I dig it. So I’m gonna share with you a few things I do online that inspire me:

one

Listen to music! I know you can do this offline, but hear me out. There is this amazing app called Spotify. Full disclosure: I spring for the premium version so I don’t have ads and I can make infinite playlists. But what I really love about Spotify is the vast amount of music you have access to. You can find something for every mood! In fact, they even have a setting where you can select the actual mood you’re looking for.

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Writing a kissing scene? There’s a playlist for that. How about a carefree summer day? They’ve got you covered. You can also put in a song you know has the mood you’re going for, set it to “radio,” and it’ll automatically pick songs that match for hours and hours and hours. You can thumbs down what you don’t like, thumbs up what you do like and it’ll tailor the station accordingly.

It’s fantastic.

I’m not getting paid for this or anything. I just really love Spotify.

But there are loads of other music services. Some free, some not, and some have free and premium options: Apple Music, Pandora, Soundcloud, heck, even YouTube. Any mood you’re trying to go for, you can find it.

two

Make Pinterest boards! I love gathering images that fit with my story, and organizing  them into a Pinterest board, which I may or may not share with trusted individuals. I search for images of models that look like I imagine my characters, scenery, props, clothing, quotes, hairstyles. Having the Pinterest board in the background really helps when I’m feeling stuck. I minimize my Word or Scrivener and take a look, and that’s usually enough to push me a few more words.

The trick is to not get caught up in searching for more pins, because Pinterest has this amazing ability to suck time away.

three

Make an aesthetic! I use Canva. It’s easy! I upload all those lovely Pinterest images and arrange them into a grid. It’s free as long as you upload your own photos—however, they do have a great library of free elements you can use as well. The cool thing about aesthetics is that they are portable. You can download one to your device and have it to glance at every time you need a boost, and you don’t need to be connected to the internet for it to work. Aesthetics are also fun to share. Here is the aesthetic of a story I might or might not write—I have no idea the direction of this book yet. But that’s OK. The important thing is that I had fun making it.

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That’s all I have for now. Do you have any suggestions? Sound off in the comments!


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: 5 Spooky Parts of Fiction Writing

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to reflect on several aspects of writing that can leave you quaking in your boots—and what to do when they happen to you. Take a look and let me know what other scary moments you’ve encountered in your own writing process!

1. When your characters take over your manuscript.

You have your plan (or maybe you don’t) and are merrily writing along—when one of your characters breaks out and does something so unexpected, you didn’t even see it coming. Maybe it’s a supporting character who rises to the occasion, or maybe your villain does something more dastardly than your darkest dreams. Maybe you don’t expect two characters to fall in love (or to break up!) and then they go and do just that.

Sometimes this is a sign that what you’d originally planned wasn’t working, or that your characters have developed beyond your first impressions of them and your subconscious is helping you embody those changes. Either way, these moments can feel scary and also thrilling, like a movie taking off before your eyes. Harness the creative energy by finishing up the scene and then reflecting on what this twist means for your characters and for the arc of the book.

2. When you come up with a plot twist and go back to incorporate foreshadowing…only to realize you already had.

This type of surprise sometimes makes you feel like you have less control of your writing than you’d like to believe. Other times, it makes you feel like a genius. It’s especially spooky when you’re far past the outline phase and find actual dialogue and character actions to provide evidence of your premonitions.

This can mean that you’ve been stewing on a character’s arc and purpose all along and the pieces are finally starting to click together. But be careful! Just because you find the original piece of foreshadowing doesn’t mean you’ve properly signaled it to the reader. Spend a bit more time thinking about whether your clue is too obvious (you’ve already thought of it twice, after all!), or whether you actually need to include additional bits of foreshadowing: a good rule is to include three separate moments in order to avoid your reveal coming totally out of left field, but that number will depend on the scale of the reveal and the length of your manuscript.

3. When the words aren’t coming.

Some writers say they don’t believe in writer’s block. I think what they really mean is that they’ve found strategies that work for them and can get them inspired—or at least help them push through—until the inertia eases. I’m not a fan of generalizations, but I’m comfortable saying that every writer reaches a crossroads where they aren’t sure what to do next, whether it’s which new idea to develop or how to deal with a manuscript that feels broken.

When this feeling creeps up on you, take a breath. You will get through it, just as you and countless other people have gotten through similar dilemmas before. Take a break from your writing if you need to—or, alternatively, set small goals that you know you can reach (one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more page). Consider revisiting your outline or reading the manuscript from the top. Gather some friends and tell them about your characters and plot, and ask them to throw ideas at you for what might happen next. Write all of these suggestions down, even if you don’t initially like them. The words will come again, but they can be shy little things: you have to find the right way to tempt them out of hiding.

4. The existential fear of never ____________.

Never getting an agent. Never getting published. Never having more than three people show up to your book signings. If you’re a writer who isn’t interested in publication and only writes for yourself, maybe you still have fears of not finishing your first book, your fifth book, your third short story. Maybe you’re afraid that even without pursuing publishing, you’ll ultimately disappoint yourself.

The fact that you’ve made it to a point where you can feel this kind of self-doubt, though, means that you’ve joined the ranks of thousands and thousands of writers, including Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Roshani Chokshi. Self-doubt to a point can even be healthy: it means you have goals and are working toward them. Just don’t let the pessimistic impulses sap your lifeblood entirely. If this happens to you often, you can even keep a scrap book of praise for your writing and/or of excerpts you’ve written and will always love.

5. Your Google search history.

I know what you looked up while writing your last piece.

Well, actually, I have no idea. But you and I both know it’d be scary out of context.

The only way around this one is to clear your browser history. 😉

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: 6 Offline Things Writers Can Do for Inspiration

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

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I mean, of course I want everyone to think I’m flowing with ideas. That I’m disciplined and sharp and always ready to produce beautiful prose, tight structure, wicked pacing, and all the things that work together to make a book special.

But alas. I’m human. And sometimes I sit, staring at the screen, trying to force words to come and they just won’t. Or they do and I don’t like them. I find myself instead watching every Instagram story, then scrolling the actual feed. Refreshing Twitter a million times. Even popping over to Facebook if I’m desperate enough for distractions. (This happens a lot more than I care to admit.)

Of course, this does the exact OPPOSITE of inspiring me. It makes me compare myself to everyone’s highlight reels. Or I get caught up in drama and don’t even pretend that I’m pulling myself away. What I need to do is GET OFF THE COMPUTER/PHONE/TABLET. Stop filling my mind with everyone else’s stories… so I can finally create my own again.

Here are some ways I do just that!

  1. Read a book. Something about seeing fully fleshed stories starts my brain gears turning. I purposely read outside the contemporary genre (what I write) so that I’m not tempted to compare my work to theirs. (For the record: I will always fall short in my mind.) To get even more fantastical, I read books whose levels are well beyond what I can imagine mine getting to, such as the Harry Potter series. The combination of those two things takes the pressure off, and I’m able to enjoy the books for fun rather than a craft study. The ideas almost always start flowing before I’ve finished the first chapter.
  2. Take a shower. Getting clean gets my ideas really flowing—to the point that I asked for (and received) one of those waterproof notepads for Christmas. Maybe it’s the meditative and familiar motions of washing that allow my brain to focus on being creative rather than having to pay so much attention to the task at hand.
  3. Meditate. This probably means that I don’t do meditation right, but during yoga class, guided meditation is when a lot of ideas really come to me. Which means I usually have no clue what the teacher is saying during class, but hey, I’ll take it.
  4. Brainstorm. Despite popular belief, writing is not all solitary. True, you have to plant your butt down and do the work, but sometimes, another voice can help you work through that plot hole, or help your story go in a direction you never expected but totally makes sense. Or that person, who is a bit more removed from your work, can help you quickly find a solution that you’ve been puzzling over forever. Something about the brainstorming exchange—especially if it’s face-to-face—always energizes and inspires me.
  5. Go to the library or a bookstore. For me, seeing all those books fills me with inspiration, determination, and maybe a little bit of envy. But mostly, I feel like, “I can do this, and I will do this. And one day, I will be on this shelf!”
  6. Take a nap. I don’t know if this actually helps or not, but naps are always good.

These are just a few things I do to harness inspiration when I’m stuck. What about you? Sound off in the comments with your offline ideas for getting inspired!


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: My Favorite Authors, and How They’ve Inspired Me to Write

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

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I wrote my first story when I was eleven years old. It was in a Michael Jackson notebook. I sat at one of the end tables in the living room and scribbled out a story about me and some of my classmates getting trapped in a haunted house.

I kept writing on and off all through middle school, high school, and college. My inspirations came mostly from boys I had crushes on, “real” or celebrities; actresses I wanted to be like or wanted to be; song lyrics; TV shows; and words tossed out carelessly by a friend or family member. But as far as being inspired to write for publication? Well, that started with a gothic horror author named V.C. Andrews.

Say what you will about V.C. Andrews, but I absolutely love her original early stuff. Flowers in the Attic? Dark Angel? I got laughed at in a writing workshop course because I admitted I liked those books. But there’s a reason the books have sold a staggering number of copies. They resonate with so many readers, but for me it was how real the characters seemed to me. Heaven’s passion. Cathy’s over-the-top way of always living. I felt like I would look up from the pages and see them in the room.

I wanted to write books that moved others like that.

But my style is not gothic horror. My style is contemporary romance with lots of kissing and a good deal of angst. Still, reading an old V.C. Andrews book seems to help kick-start me back into writing.

I draw inspiration from many authors, but the ones that seem to really feed my fires are the following:

  • J.K. Rowling. I re-read the Harry Potter series quite often, and it never fails. As soon as I’m two pages in, my mind starts churning with all sorts of ideas. And because I don’t write fantasy, it’s not that I’m ripping her off. There is something in the way her words feed me that help me do my own work.
  • Sarah Dessen. I read a book of hers called The Truth About Forever, and in it was a side character named Monica. Monica moves very slowly and talks in a monotone, and I could not stop thinking about her, wondering how she looked, and if she flopped across the couch like the weight of the world was on her chest. I decided I needed to write characters that people thought about after they put the book down.
  • Jennifer Niven. Her book All The Bright Places actually inspired me to write the book I’m currently revising for my agent. Her writing is pretty but easy to digest, and her characters inspire so many fans. If I got fan art of my characters like she does, I’d feel as if I’ve really arrived. I want to inspire people like that.
  • Nicola Yoon. Her skill amazes me. The way she weaves stories in and out, the way she adds in quirky things to get the point across in simple and fun ways. The way you are immediately drawn to and falling in love with her characters. It always seems to come down to characters for me.
  • Laurie Halse Anderson. I met her years ago, and she inscribed in my copy of Speak: “Remember, pre-publication is a temporary condition. Keep writing.”  Learning about her drafting process (it’s intense), her research process (even more intense) showed me someone who cares deeply, so very deeply, about her work. And it shows through her words. I want that kind of discipline, dedication, and skill. And it was her who jump-started me back into seriously writing six years ago, with an exercise called Writing Fifteen Minutes a Day (WFMAD). She had two prompts every day on her blog—a fiction and a non-fiction prompt. Those prompts got my writing wheels going after having laid dormant for years, and I haven’t looked back (much) since.

Those are just a few of the authors who inspire me. It’s not always about lush writing, intricate worlds, or a breakneck pace. I simply need to care about the characters (including side characters), to want to go on these journeys with them, to live in their worlds and in their heads for a while.  And I want readers to care that much about the characters I create and write. I’m working on it! 🙂


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.