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Thursday, March 31, 2011

7 Tips For Building a Writing Habit

One of the fundamental concepts behind DIY MFA is that the program starts with you.  All the creativity, effort and success comes from and goes back to you.  Sure, I can show you some options or suggest some places to start, but ultimately, you are the driving force behind your DIY MFA.  All I'm doing is helping you get started; the rest is up to you.

And that can be kind of scary.

After all, it's easy to follow instructions and work within an established framework, but do-it-yourself isn't like that.  It can be terrifying to forge your own path, and sometimes structure can be comforting, even for us free-spirited creative types. 

So what do we do when there is no structure?  We develop a writing habit.  And how exactly do we develop and nurture this habit?  Here are some easy tips.

1) Take baby steps.  Try not to push yourself too hard at first because if you do, you'll be more likely to face burnout later on.  The goal is for your writing habit to be sustainable in the long run, so don't go for a huge overhaul.  Instead try to make a handful of small, significant changes that will make a big impact on your writing down the road.

2) Give yourself permission to make mistakes.  Building a habit is like being a constant newbie at something.  After all, as soon as you get comfortable, you take another baby step toward your goal.  This means resting on your laurels is never an option, which is why it's so important to allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes.  Remember that mistakes are inevitable; you might as well learn how to bounce back.

3) It's OK to have fun.  Many of us have had the idea that writing is "work" rammed into our heads.  This is why when we start having fun with writing it's hard to believe we're actually working.  But we are; we're just having fun at it.  It's OK for writing to be fun and just because it feels more like play than work doesn't make it any less worthy.

4) Real writers write when it's hard.  Writing when it's easy is, well... easy, but when it stops being fun, you still need to write.  The thing that separates true writers from the wannabes is what happens when the writing becomes tough.  Wannabes quit when it stops being fun, true writers work through the pain.
5) When you fall off the horse, dust yourself off and try again.  Don't waste precious energy beating yourself up for missing a few days of writing.  Just tell yourself "it's a new day" and start fresh.

6) Find out what's causing writer's block.  If have a string of bad writing days, take a few moments to reevaluate and figure out why that might be happening.  Maybe you've been over-stressed or over-tired.  Maybe you've got a lot on your plate right now.  Think about how you can adjust your writing habit to account for the hurdles you're facing.  Once you've come up with a plan, let go of the past and move forward toward your goals.

7) Take the day off, now and then.  And when you do, don't spend the whole time feeling guilty because you're not writing.  If you need a day off, make a conscious decision not to write, then go about your life.

In the end, it's all about being a more mindful writer.  Don't let the past and future moments dictate whether you're able to write in the present.  Learn from past experiences or mistakes but don't let them haunt you.  When you're writing, write.  When you're not writing, live your life.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DIY MFA Twitter Chats (and Some Twitter Tips)

Hi everyone!  Hope you're all getting excited for DIY MFA starting this weekend.  Today, I just wanted to write a quick post to announce the schedule for DIY MFA Twitter Chats.

Starting in April, we'll be chatting on Sundays from 5pm - 6pm EDT.  Each week I'll have a topic and we can discuss, or we can talk about DIY MFA in general.  It'll also be a time to debrief after the Saturday Writing Sprints and a great way to connect with other writers.

DIY MFA chats will use the hashtag #diymfa.


For those who are new to twitter chats, here are a few twitter tips that have helped me navigate the world of twitter chats:

Use TweetChat: allows you to enter a hashtag and then it opens that hashtag in a new window, sort of like a chat window.  It's got some great features like it bolds tweets with your @username on it and your own tweets so if there are multiple threads in the chat, it's easier to follow.  It also automatically adds the chat hashtag to your tweets.

Remember, Twitter Chats are not Chat Rooms:  In a generic chat room, everyone who sees your posts is also involved in the chat, but this is not true for twitter chats.  The trick to tweeting effectively during a chat is to make your tweets specific to the chat but also broad and detailed enough so that if someone sees it out of context it could still make sense.  Of course, it's impossible to do this with all your tweets, but you should try to avoid strings of tweets that look like this:
@person1: OMG! Awesome!
@person1: @person2  Totally agree.
@person1: @person3  Yeah, me too.

This is where using Retweets can help give your tweets context.  Like this:

@person1: OMG! Awesome! RT @person2 Just finished my novel!
@person1: Totally agree.  RT @person2 Writing a novel is hard.
@person1: Yeah, me too.  RT @person3  I wish I had finished my novel already. Taking too long.

Don't be shy.  Jump in.  Tweeps are nice peeps.  Don't let a chat full of people who know each other make you nervous.  Just say hello and jump into the conversation.

Forgot to add this when I first posted but will add it now:
Anyone else have other advice for twitter chat newbies?  Also anyone who's done a twitter chat: can you tell us which ones you'd recommend?

(I'll share my #chat picks in the comments.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Introducing: DIY MFA TA's!

Before I get to the main topic of this post, I wanted to remind you all that DIY MFA 2.O is only a few days away and you can register for it by going to this post.  It's free to register and not only will you get a free DIY MFA eWorkbook but you'll also be entered for a chance to win an iggilicious prize!

And now for the main topic: I've decided to assemble a team of TA's (Teaching Assistants) for DIY MFA.  These are people who either participated in DIY MFA last time and were very active in the community, some even have official MFAs.  These are folks who have brainstormed with me and helped me work out kinks in the program, to such an extent that they could practically teach it themselves.

Throughout DIY MFA 2.O, the TA's will be active in the comments and chats.  These people are here to help, so don't be shy about following them on twitter, visiting their blogs and asking questions.  Here's a short intro to the TA's and a little bit of what they have to say about DIY MFA!

J.C. Martin
"As a new-ish writer, last year's DIY MFA really helped me with getting to grips with writing techniques and ideas! I'm sooo looking forward to DIY MFA 2.0! This time round, I'm hoping to perhaps learn how to really boost my writing productivity!"
You can find J.C. at her website or on twitter (@JCMartin_author). 

Kerryn Angell
"After spending five years pursuing writing for publication and two years editing the same WIP I was lost. DIY MFA opened my eyes to the variety writing has to offer: reading, craft, ideas, community and critique. I fell back in love with reading, connected with my local writing community in person and found a renewed focus and excitement to write."
Check out more of what Kerryn has to say at her blog and on twitter (@kerrynangell).

Ghenet Myrthil
"Since graduating with an MFA last spring, I've been working hard on my first book, a contemporary YA novel. Writing in the "real world" without the structure and support of an MFA program has been a challenge. That's why I'm excited about DIY MFA 2.0! I look forward to connecting with other writers, feeling inspired and getting a much-needed boost to finish my book."
You can find Ghenet blogging, tweeting (@ghenet) and drinking lots of chai tea lattes.

Dave Symonds
"Last fall I benefited most from the Love of Literature posts and was able to put together a solid reading list.  Organizing a reading list helped me get on a reading schedule; not only was I reading more books similar to my WIP, but I was also able to keep up with the latest and greatest in my genre. I’m looking forward to the craft posts this time around, putting writing exercises to good use and improving my WIP on a daily basis."
Read more of Dave's words on twitter (@davidiocy).

Thank you to all the TA's for helping me with this project.  Looking forward to a great month this April!

Monday, March 28, 2011

DIY MFA 2.O Registration

OMG there are so many exciting things I want to tell you all, I don't even know where to start.  First, DIY MFA 2.O is only a few short days away and as of today, registration is OPEN! 

Exciting Thing #1:
Everyone who registers for DIY MFA 2.O will receive a free DIY MFA eWorkbook.  This workbook contains a sampling of some my DIY MFA "greatest hits" along with new material, including worksheets that are completely new to DIY MFA!  Just fill out the form and I'll email you the eWorkbook.  (Please allow 1-2 weeks.) 

Exciting Thing #2:
As with the last DIY MFA, everyone who registers will also be entered in a giveaway!  This time around I'll be giving away five (5!) adorable iggi journals to five lucky winners.  These iggilicious journals will look a little something like this:

Here are the rules for the giveaway:

• Please sign up using the form below.
Giveaway ends at 11:59 EDT on April 30, 2011.
• Everyone who signs up before the closing date automatically gets one entry in the giveaway!
• For extra entries you can:
     1)  Tweet about DIY MFA Registration between today and Friday (+1 entries per tweet for up to 5 tweets).  Don't forget to include a link back to this post and to use the #diymfa hashtag!
     2)  Post a badge on your website or blog with a link back to this registration post (+2 entries).  Don't forget to enter your blog or website URL on the form.  You can find badges on the iggi-Graphics page.
     3)  Write a post on your blog about DIY MFA this week (+3 entries).  Again, please include your blog URL and please link back to this post.

OK, so just fill out the form and you'll automatically get a free copy of the DIY MFA eWorkbook and you'll be entered for a chance to win an iggilicious journal!

Edit: Contest is now closed.  But you can still sign up to get a free workbook by joining the DIY MFA List.  Don't worry, you won't get spam and I won't share your email address with any person or entity.  All you'll get is the occasional DIY MFA update and the free workbook (please allow 5-7 days).

Friday, March 25, 2011

YA Cafe: 5 Ways Romance Can Enhance a Story

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special:  Why does romance matter in YA?

5 Ways that Romance can Enhance a Story (YA, or not):

1) It creates conflict.  From Judy Blume to Carolyn Mackler, authors know that adding a romantic interest to a story is a great way to add conflict.  Even if the story itself is not about the romance, having romantic tension can add an element of conflict to the plot.  Take Mackler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things for example.  In this book, the main issue revolves around the protagonist's self-image and her relationship to her family, but her tension with "the boy" helps add an extra conflict.

2) It offsets violence or sadness.  In books where violence (The Hunger Games) or sadness (If I Stay) are central to the story, having a romantic element brings in a breath of fresh air amidst the pain.  In The Hunger Games moments between Peeta and Katniss give the reader a little break from the constant chaos of the violence.  In If I Stay, the deep sorrow that fills the book is offset by happier flashback moments between the protagonist and her boyfriend.

3) It raises the stakes.  Again, The Hunger Games is a perfect example.  Until Peeta declares his love for Katniss, the main conflict in the story is "Will Katniss win the Hunger Games and survive?"  But the minute we start liking Peeta and we realize that he's willing to sacrifice himself for Katniss, the stakes get higher.  According to the rules, there can't be two winners in the games, so for Katniss to survive Peeta will have to die.  Voila!  Higher stakes.

4) It helps make less sympathetic characters sympathetic.  This one was tough to find examples to illustrate, but Dakota in Tangled is a good example.  When we first meet him, he seems cruel and manipulative but as the story develops, we learn details about his romantic life that explain his manipulate behavior.  His budding relationship with a new woman adds depth to his character and makes him more sympathetic.

5) Even if we know how it will turn out, we still keep reading.  I call this the Pride and Prejudice effect.  Sure, we know almost immediately that Lizzy and Darcy will end up together, but we keep reading.  The interest isn't in what will happen, but how.  Unlike any other element or genre in literature, romance is the only one that can be completely predictable and yet will still keep us reading.

Want to read more about romance?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us why romance in YA matters to you.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

DIY MFA 2.O: Schedule

Yesterday, I talked about the Four Phases of Idea Generation and I mentioned that the Inspiration Phase would play a big role in DIY MFA 2.O.  For all of April, we will focus on different ways of sparking inspiration by using four different elements of writing as our jumping off point.  Week 1 will be all about character.  In week 2, we'll look at story and week 3 will emphasize mood.  Finally, in week 4 we'll focus on how words themselves can generate new ideas.

Within each week, we'll approach each topic using courses from DIY MFA as a framework.  These courses will be: Love of Literature, Brain Boot Camp and Craftivity.

Love of Literature
If you're doing this DIY MFA, you're probably a big reading fan.  In fact, I'm guessing you have piles of books hiding under your couch, in the pantry, or even in your freezer.  Who uses a freezer, anyway?  It's just a big yummy box that will keep your books minty-fresh until you're ready to gobble them up.  But I digress.  The trouble with reading is that taking a random approach doesn't always serve us writers best.  In Love of Literature we'll look at specific pieces of writing and talk about how reading can help us think of new ideas as well as gain a deeper understanding of craft.

Tuesdays & Wednesdays
This course is all about how craft and creativity come together.  We're talking about that wonderfully exciting kind of craft that's all about writing and creativity.  in DIY MFA 2.O we'll look at how to use certain elements of craft to spice up our writing or to spark new ideas.

Brain Boot Camp
Sunday & Thursday
This super-intensive approach to creativity will be all about drawing outside the lines, breaking down mental blocks and living the creative life.  Think of this component as a month-long creative kick in the backside. 

Fridays will still be dedicated to YA Cafe, though I'll do my best to link the posts to the DIY MFA weekly topic.

On Saturdays, we all do our Writing Sprints.  I'll do a short post to help you get started if you need a boost, but you don't have to be limited by that weekly prompt.  The sprint is your time to work on whatever project you like.  Also, I'll include badges so at the end of the sprint you can post them on your own sites and show off your accomplishment.

DIY MFA 2.O Schedule

Sunday: Brainstorming (Brain Boot Camp, part I)
Monday: Literature Study (Love of Literature)
Tuesday & Wednesday: Craft Study (Craftivity)
Thursday: Warming up for the Sprint (Brain Boot Camp, part II)
Friday: YA Cafe
Saturday: Writing Sprint

Note: While with the first DIY MFA series, you could focus on only the courses of your choice, this time around all the weekly classes build on each other.  While I won't be doing weekly recaps, I will create page for  DIY MFA 2.O and post links to all the posts so if you miss anything, you can catch up.

Can't wait to get started.  How about you?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

4 Phases of Idea-Generation

Most new ideas or concepts go through a four-phase process.  The time spent in each phase--along with the order of the phases themselves--can vary depending on the person and the project.  Some phases can even be repeated multiple times throughout the creative process.

4 Phases of Idea Generation

Inspiration Phase
This phase is where you get that initial spark of an idea and it's what most people think of as the creative process (though as you'll see, the creative process extends beyond this phase).  In DIY MFA 2.O, we'll be focusing on this phase, talking about some of the techniques writers can use to dig up new ideas for projects.

Incubation Phase
This is when you let the idea sit for a while.  You might feel weird leaving a project hanging--lazy even--but this phase is an important stage in any creative development.  In writing, incubation can occur between drafts, in the middle of a draft, or even before you start the very first draft.  The important thing is being able to recognize when you need to step back from a project and give yourself room to do so.

Illumination Phase
This is the evaluation stage, where you look at the idea or project, tease it apart and figure out its weak points.  This is also where you look at the overall organization of your idea and shuffle things around as needed.  While your inner critic might usually be persona non grata, in this phase, it might be appropriate to let it have its say.  Later on, we'll talk later about ways to use your inner critic productively without letting it go spastic and take over your project.

Implementation Phase
This phase, which usually comes at the end, is where you stop thinking and start writing.  Funny how that keeps coming up again and again in ORACLE-related posts.  In the end, it all comes down to the same thing: you can plan and think and ponder all you like, but sooner or later you have to sit down and write.

Every writer has at least one phase they love and at least one that makes a root canal sound like fun.  For me, implementation is where I drag my feet but I'm nutso for the other three.  In fact, I have to limit the number of WIPs I have going or else I'd be constantly tempted to start a ton of projects and I'd never finish any.  What phase do you tend to get "stuck" in and never want to leave?  Which phase scares the living daylights out of you?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

5 Principles for Generating Ideas

When it comes to generating ideas there are basically two ways you can do it: the easy way and the hard way.  Neither one is necessarily better than the other, but the easy way will definitely save you a lot of time, stress and agony, while the hard way... well, it's just hard.

This is where the ORACLE comes in.  The ORACLE is all about making life easier for you, especially when it comes to generating ideas.  Here are a few principles that I've learned from my ORACLE that have helped make my writing life a lot easier.

•  Leave some things to chance.  Let's face it, part of what makes writing so challenging isn't that we don't have enough choices, it's that we have too many.  Sometimes having to make so many decisions can be paralyzing and limiting your options can actually be liberating.  This is when I turn to the ORACLE.  With the flip of a coin or roll of the die, I can take a decision out of my hands and put it in the hands of chance.  Today, try letting chance decide one small detail in your writing.

•  Engage the five senses.  When I'm at a loss for ideas, I go back to the basics.  I focus on the five senses, particularly senses other than sight (since that one tends to be the one I use most often).  I make a soundtrack for the story I'm working on.  I burn a candle and focus on the scent.  I eat jelly beans in weird flavors.  I go to my knitting stash and pet the yarn.  The latter is how I got the idea for one of my projects.  Try to draw on one of your lesser-used senses.

•  Embrace the unexpected.  I still remember the first time a character of mine hijacked the story from me.  I was writing a short story with an eleven-year-old boy protagonist and suddenly the kid is standing in the living room with his mom measuring him for a party dress and I realized that my character was really a girl.  I spent some time trying to rework the story, to keep with my original vision but the story only came to life the minute I let go of my own personal agenda and let the character be who she wanted to be.  Have you ever had something unexpected come up in a project?  How did you handle it?

•  Step beyond your comfort zone.  It's easy for writers to get into a routine and sometimes rituals can help us prepare for a writing session.  At the same time, though, too much routine can hinder more than help, and it's up to us to do something to shake things up.  For me, a great way to break a humdrum routine is to try an new environment.  Sometimes that means just moving to a different room in the apartment; sometimes I have to pack up my notebook and take a subway to a different part of the city.  Do one small thing this week to push you outside your comfort zone.

•  Practice, practice, practice.  One of the most important parts of DIY MFA is the actual doing of it.  We can talk about writing in the abstract forever but the writing won't do itself.  Sooner or later we have to grit our teeth and do the work and this is where practice comes in.  A friend recently recommended an app for the computer called Pomodoro.  I tried it and now I swear by it.  Seriously.  It keeps me accountable and forces me to focus for short spurts, rather than letting me sit at my desk for hours, zoning out and checking twitter.  What kinds of techniques can you use to help get you in the zone?

How you can apply these five principles to your writing this week?

Monday, March 21, 2011


You've heard me mention the ORACLE in the past, but today I thought I would give you a more detailed look at what the ORACLE really is. First things first; the ORACLE stands for:


I store my ORACLE in a treasure chest because every time I visit, I like thinking that I'm going to discover a little piece of treasure.  What's inside this box of tricks?  I'll show you:

These are just a few things that live in (or near) the ORACLE.  The box is so jam-packed with stuff that some things no longer fit in the ORACLE proper and have been moved to various annex locations.  There are also some additional items not show in the picture, including: mood playlists on my iPod, a deck of cards (for playing solitaire), and of course the Idea Bank.

Why do I keep bringing up this ORACLE idea?

Because the ORACLE will be central to the structure of DIY MFA 2.O.  Just like DIY MFA is about giving you the tools to build a satisfying and productive writing life, the ORACLE is about building a diverse skill set for generating ideas.  Sure, I could give you prompts or exercises from my own ORACLE, but at the end of April, where would that leave you?  Instead, I'd rather give you tools and tricks I've developed that will help you come up with your own infinite bank of ideas.  That way, you'll always have somewhere to turn if your creative well goes temporarily dry.

But before get carried away, we need to talk about some ORACLE basics.  This week, in preparation for DIY MFA 2.O, I'll be doing a post series on the ORACLE.  Posts will include:
  • 5 Principles for Generating Ideas
  • 4 Results You Can Expect from the ORACLE (and I'll let you in on which one will be especially important to DIY MFA 2.O)
  • The DIY MFA 2.O Schedule
In the meantime, I want to hear from you.  I showed you what's in my writing toolbox, now show me yours, 'k?  What are some things in your writing toolbox that you simply cannot do without?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

DIY MFA: Writing Sprints and a Marathon

Today I wanted to give you all an update on DIY MFA.  Over the next two weeks , I'll be doing a few lead-up "DIY MFA Orientation" posts, explaining some background (especially important if you're new to DIY MFA and didn't participate in the fall).  A week from this Monday, I'll be opening sign-ups for DIY MFA 2.O and I'll be announcing a sooper-seekrit, sooper-exciting giveaway.

But first off, I wanted to talk about two things that I'm really excited about but are new to DIY MFA this time around.  These are: writing sprints and a writing marathon.

Every Saturday during April, I'll be doing DIY MFA Writing Sprints.

Here's how it works:  I'll be blocking out a chunk of time (between one and three hours) each Saturday in April to make a mega-push on my writing.  Sure, this might mean making some sacrifices--like waking up an hour, or two, or three earlier than usual (ugh)--but we writers need to get used to making sacrifices for our work.  These sprints will be good practice.

I'm telling you about these sprints because I'd love for you to join me!

I'll be making some iggilicious badges that you can post on your blog to show off your awesome weekend accomplishment.  Also, you can use the twitter hash tag #diymfa to share how long or how much you wrote.  If you don't tweet, you can also share your results in the comments for that day's DIY MFA post.  Cheer-leading other DIY MFA tweeps is strongly encouraged.  The idea is to create an online community of DIY MFAers writing together and encouraging each other even if they're in totally different locations across the globe.

On Sunday May 1st, to celebrate the end of DIY MFA, I'll be doing a Writing MARATHON.  This idea was inspired by Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones but is a little bit different.  Rather than committing to a specific time/place, writers can commit either to a full marathon (~6 hours) or a half marathon (~3 hours), then write those hours whenever or wherever during that day.

I myself will camp out somewhere in NYC and write ALL DAY.  I'll post where I'm writing so that folks in NYC can come by and join even if it's just for a short sprint.  Also, like with the sprints, people are encouraged to tweet their progress and encourage each other to make it through the marathon.  At the end of the day, we'll have a post-marathon, post-DIY MFA twitter party!

So my question for you is: are you in?

Friday, March 18, 2011

YA Cafe: Searching for Short Stories

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

 Today's Special:  Short Stories for Teens

I love short stories.  I use them for teaching and I also like reading them for fun.  Part of why I like them so much is that you get a whole story--beginning, middle and end--in one small package.  You can read the whole thing in one sitting and don't have to wait until next time to find out what happens.  For someone like me who reads book endings compulsively, short stories are the perfect solution.

The only problem is, it's nearly impossible to find short stories written for teens because there are very few venues that publish them.  I have managed to find a few anthologies especially for teen literature.  Here are some of the ones I've read recently.

Geektastic (edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci): This is one of my all-time favorites.  In this anthology, YA greats (Libba Bray, Bary Lyga, Sara Zarr, M.T. Anderson and David Levithan, just to name a few) share stories about various areas of geekdom.  From trekkies  to gamers to theater geeks, this anthology is one delicious collection of all things geeky.

Zombies vs. Unicorns (edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier): This book attempts to answer that all-important question: which is cooler, zombies or unicorns?  Personally, I'm on team unicorn because animals that fart rainbows amuse me.  What about you, are you team zombie or team unicorn?

Love is Hell: Part of the same series as "Prom Nights from Hell" and "Vacations from Hell," this collection has stories by five well-known YA authors that each give a paranormal twist to the typical YA romance.  Not as entertaining as Geektastic or Zombies vs. Unicorns but still fun, in that guilty pleasure sort of way.  I read this book on the beach; it's the perfect beach read.

But never fear, there are more places where you can find great teen literature and Ghenet will be telling you about one of the coolest ones on her blog.  So zoom over there right now and read all about it!

Want to hear more about the AWESOME that's happening in teen literature?  Fellow barista, Ghenet gives the details on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us places where you've discovered short stories for teens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Idea Bank

One of the things you'll need to collect for DIY MFA 2.O is an Idea Bank.  The bank itself can take any number of shapes: a cookie tin, a shoebox, a jar, a small vase.  I'm using this pink cube vase that I found at a thrift shop.

How it works: Write down and any ideas you can't work on right now and deposit them in the Idea Bank so that they'll be there for you when you need them later on.  You can keep adding to your stash or taking from it over time.

How is this different from the ORACLE?  The ORACLE is where you keep your creativity tools.  The Idea Bank is where you store the unused fruits of your creativity.

How I use my Idea Bank: I carry slips of paper with me so I can jot down ideas on the go.  When I think of a funny line, prompt or idea for a story, I write it down, fold it up and when I get home I put it in the bank.  Then when I need a creative kick in the pants, I pull an idea out of the bank at random and use that to fuel my writing.

Note that there are no limitations or rules about what you can put in your Idea Bank. In addition to folded pieces of paper, you can also use put in pictures or any other objects that could spark a story or idea.

Hint: If you're planning to do StoryADay in May, start building up a store of ideas in the bank.

Think about it: if you come up with one good prompt every day between now and April 30, you'll have more than enough story ideas to get you through May.  Then when you get to the challenge, you can focus on writing and not on thinking up ideas.

Even if you don't do a month-long challenge like StoryADay, you can still use the Idea Bank to store your ideas until you have time to work on them.  Right now, I'm only alloted two works-in-progress (otherwise I'd have way too many started projects and none that are ever finished).  I use the Idea Bank to store concepts I don't have time for right now but would like to come back to later.

Have you found an Idea Bank for your DIY MFA 2.O?  What is it?  How do you plan to use it?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beware the Ides of March

As a writer, the Ides of March have always had a special significance to me because for me, this is the day when I can laugh in the faces of all the naysayers in my life.

Ordinarily, I try to keep an optimistic outlook about my writing.  I do my best not to complain about writing or the publishing process, because really, I have no right to complain about it.  No one forced me into writing; I chose it all by myself.  If I feel the need to complain about it then I'll have to deal with that all-important question: why am I even doing this in the first place?

But even when I'm at my most optimistic, I still have to face a wet blanket every so often.  These are the people who pester me with stupid questions like: "Do you think you'll actually 'make it' as a writer?  Why don't you stop this insanity and get a real job?"  To which I respond: "This is a real job.  Back off, Brutus."  Sometimes the naysayers even come in the form of supposed allies who ask questions like: "So, how's the book coming?" when they really mean: "Are you going to get published before me?"  To which I reply again: "Go soak your head, Brutus."

The Ides of March are when writers need to look carefully at their life and identify who are their friends and who are really back-stabbers posing as friends.  Then we turn to the latter and say: 

E tu Brute? 

Because we don't need negative energy in our lives.  We don't need any more conflict than that which we already create on the page ourselves.  And to those writers out there who get soaked by wet blankets but manage to shake the water off: you are my heroes.  Write on!

Monday, March 14, 2011

DIY MFA: School Supplies

In preparation for DIY MFA 2.O, I'd like you to go shopping for school supplies.   While you don't need to restock your school supplies altogether, you should treat yourself to a few small things.  You're starting on a big project and by taking time to put together a couple of tools and supplies, you show that you're serious and are making an investment in your writing.

So what do you need to collect before you start?  Here's a photo of my DIY MFA 2.O kit.

Notebook:  The ecosystem notebooks are nice because they're environmentally friendly and come in pretty colors.  I would rather write on unlined paper, but that's a personal preference.  I also like writing inspiring quotes in the inside front and back covers for encouragement.

Pen: My favorites are Pilot Varsity in dark blue (not shown above) because I want to be able to see comments I write on manuscripts easily and dark blue is also easy on the eyes.  I buy these pens in bulk online.

Postcard:  I keep a postcard of a Tiffany stained glass window with my notebook at all times.  The image is what I think of as my imaginary ideal writing space.  If I'm writing in a noisy cafe or crowded subway, I can look at the picture and imagine myself in a peaceful writing space.  On the back of the postcard, I've written three mantras.  No matter what obstacle I'm running into with my writing, one of these mantras usually helps.  They are:
"No guts, no glory."
"Keep the drama on the page."
"Stop thinking; just write."

Stickers:  Actually, it doesn't need to be stickers, per se, but you do need some sort of reward-system.  I give myself a sticker for a writing job well done and to celebrate that small victory but oh-so-important victory that comes with a good writing session.

Dice:  Currently, this is my favorite writing tool.  I carry two dice with me at all times.

Mascot:  I think every writer needs a mascot.  It's like having a little piece of your workspace with you even if you're "writing out."  It also means you have company while engaging in that lonely craft of writing.  The mascot is also a reminder that you are awesome.  After all, how many people actually have mascots?

Brain Bank:  I'm going to use the pink vase-cube in the picture, but you can use anything you like.  The only requirement for this item is that it be big enough to store your ideas.  Some ideas: piggy bank, cookie tin, small basket, cookie jar, even a shoe box.  I'll talk about what to do with your Brain Bank later this week.

As you assemble your writing tools, remember to keep things as portable as possible, so you can write on the go.  The only one that might be non-portable is the Idea Bank, but you could make it portable by using a pencil case or coin purse for it.  Here's a picture of my portable writing kit.

Now you tell me: what other supplies are must-haves in your DIY MFA 2.O toolkit?

Friday, March 11, 2011

YA Cafe: Adventures in Dystopia

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

 Today's Special:  Why do we love dystopian Teen Literature?

I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying this but I don't watch the news.  I don't read the newspaper and the only type of online news that I follow is stuff that pertains to writing and literature.  Because that's what I like to read: books.  In an ideal world, I would live somewhere where I could get my news and current events from novels rather than periodicals, television or the internet.  This is why I love dystopian teen literature.

Gabi's Top Five Countdown: Why Dystopian YA is So Much Better than Watching the News

5)  It talks about real issues in a non-boring way.  Let's face it, political issues and current events can be a bit dry sometimes, but dystopian literature takes those same ideas and talks about them in a way that makes me not want to fall asleep.  I'd much rather read The Hunger Games than an editorial rant on why reality television's all that is evil in our society.  And M.T. Anderson's Feed is almost scary in how well it predicts that technology is taking over our culture.  I love dystopian YA because it gets teens (and adults!) to think about important issues without boring everyone to tears.

4)  There can be violence but in reality, no one gets hurt.  I'll admit it, I like a good fight scene when I read dystopian literature.  Still, there is something comforting in knowing that when I put the book down, no humans or animals were actually harmed in the making of that story.  It shocks me how we can watch violence on the news, then change the channel or shrug it off, like it's scenes from some action movie.  It's not.  People are getting hurt for real.  Maybe I'm crazy, but the news should not be "entertainment."  This is one of the reasons why The Hunger Games really spoke to me.  It's a great commentary about how we allow grim realities of war and violence become "entertainment" on the news.

3)  There's love.  I love that almost every dystopian YA book boils down to the notion: "The world sucks.  Let's make out."  There are all these terrible things going on in these dystopian worlds and yet these teen protagonists are still real teens.  The world might be falling apart, but they still care whether the person they're crushing on likes them back.  Even in books where there isn't a strong romantic thread, there's still some deep and caring relationship that propels the story and gives the protagonist hope.  Which brings me to reason #2.

2)  There's hope.  No matter how bad things get in dystopia, the characters always manage to find hope.  Protagonists in dystopian novels are probably the most optimistic people in the universe because even though their world is unthinkably awful, they still hope things will get better.

1)  You know when you're being lied to.  Dystopian YA literature doesn't pretend it's telling us real facts.  It's perfectly clear the moment you pick up The Hunger Games or Matched that the place you're reading about isn't actually real.  These days, reports and footage get chopped up and edited so that they tell the "right story" and give the news the right spin.  It's hard to know who to trust.

I'm not saying every single news channel or newspaper is out to distort and manipulate our minds, but I do think that we all need to have a healthy dose of skepticism about what we believe at face value.  With dystopian literature, we know from the get-go that it's not real; there's no pretense of reality.  And I find that rather refreshing.

Want to hear more about dystopian teen literature?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you love about dystopian YA!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


What is DIY MFA?
 DIY MFA stands for Do-It-Yourself MFA.

OK that's nice, but what-the-hey is an MFA?
The MFA is a master's degree in the fine arts.  You can go to school for an MFA in any number of fields including: Film, Studio Art and Sculpture, Music, Theater and, of course, Creative Writing.  This is usually a two-year degree (if done full-time), though length can vary between different programs.  Also, some schools offer an MA (Master of Arts) in Creative Writing and some schools even have PhD's in Creative Writing.

Do you have something against MFA programs?  Is that why you created DIY MFA?
MFAs are great--in fact, I happen to have one.  For some people, the MFA can be a good fit, but for others it just isn't feasible.  Logistics, time and money are all factors that play into a writer's decision to do an MFA and for some people it just doesn't make sense.  But this doesn't mean these writers are any less serious than their MFA-going counterparts.  That's where DIY MFA comes in.  I want to share some of the secrets and skills I learned in my own MFA experience and help writers develop their own Do-It-Yourself writing plans.

What is iggi U?
iggi U is the only university--imaginary or otherwise--where you can do a DIY MFA.  It’s called iggi U because iggi happened to be the first creature to graduate from this fine institution.  He's also the university president, provost, dean and coach for the soccer team.

If I go to iggi U and do the DIY MFA, will I get a degree?
Sadly, no, at least not a real degree.  iggi U would be happy to grant you an imaginary degree but that won't help you much in terms of building credentials or a resume.  iggi U is a fictitious university and not accredited by any powers-that-be so if your goal is to get an official degree, you'll need to go to an official school.

The truth is, an official degree would go against all iggi U core beliefs.  The whole point of DIY MFA is that learning can't be defined by geographical location or a set period of time.  Learning happens throughout life.  You learn something every time you write a new sentence, send out a query or get a rejection.  DIY MFA's #1 goal is to help you reclaim your writing education and take charge of what you learn, rather than letting it take charge of you.  DIY MFA is about being an active participant in your own writing life.

Any other questions about DIY MFA that you'd like me to answer?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Coming Soon: DIY MFA 2.O

That's right, DIY MFA is coming back in April for another month-long spree of writing fun!  For those who aren't familiar with the Do-It-Yourself MFA concept, you can visit iggi U and check out posts from our first extrabloganza last September.

DIY MFA 2.O will be all about getting the creative juices flowing.  Didja notice that it's the letter O and not a zero?  That's because the O stands for ORACLE, which will be a huge part of this new version of DIY MFA.

What's the ORACLE, you ask?  The ORACLE is a place where writers go to commune with the muse.  The acronym stands for: Outrageous, Ridiculous, and Absurdly Creative Literary Exercises.  Remember how in ancient times, people would go visit an oracle to get answers to life's problems?  This is sort of the same idea except this ORACLE helps you bust your way through writer's block.  No, the ORACLE won't write your book for you, but it does put you in touch with awesome ideas and scrumptious stories buried in your brain.

In this new version of DIY MFA, we'll be focusing on bringing some of those stories-to-be out of hiding.  We'll build a secret stash of writing ideas so that when you're under pressure to find new stories, you'll have somewhere to go where you can find them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  First things first.  Over the next few weeks, I'll be fine-tuning my plan for April and I needed some input from you all.  I want to know what you think worked and didn't work about DIY MFA in September, and what you want to see more of DIY MFA 2.O.  And, if you didn't participate in September, I want to hear from you too.  My goal is to make this the best DIY MFA yet,  just for you.

Please share your iggilicious thoughts in the form below.  If you have more detailed comments to add, feel free to leave them in the comments section.  Thank you!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing Lessons from My Violin

I have a love-hate relationship with my violin the same way I have a love-hate relationship with writing.  There are many similarities between my writing life and my violin life.  In fact, lot of important lessons I've learned about writing, came from playing the violin for so many years.

1)  Practice your scales.  Anyone who plays an instrument has spent hours (maybe even days) practicing nothing but scales, arpeggios and etudes.  Why do we bother with all that pointless stuff?  I mean, it's not like I'd ever perform my C# melodic minor at a recital.  Doesn't it defeat the purpose of practicing something if you're never going to perform it?

On the contrary, it's important to find time for scales even if it means the thing we're practicing won't "pan out" or "become something" later on.  In writing, I've learned that even if a book or story doesn't reach the ready-to-submit stage, that doesn't make it any less worthy than projects that have.  This is why it's important build some time into our writing schedule for scales... er, I mean writing exercises.

2)  Do not practice in public.  As a kid, I used to hate it when I'd go to music school and the other kids would hang around before class and noodle on their violins.  I call this faux-practicing.  It isn't real practice because real practice doesn't look so effortless and flashy.  Faux-practice is showing off; it's performing but making it look like practice.  How do I know this?  Because every musician knows that real practice is not something you do in public.  Real practice is embarrassing and messy and downright ugly.  And it's best kept behind closed doors.

When it comes to writing, I often have that impulse to let people see my work when it's still in the "practice" phase.  I suppose I let people into my practice space prematurely because otherwise they won't believe I'm actually writing.  The violin kid inside has helped me gain the strength to tell people: "Back off.  I'll show you when I'm ready."

3)  Sometimes you have to suck it up and do it.  Every morning from the age of 4 on, I would spring out of bed and say to myself: "Aw yeah!  I get to practice the violin today!"  And if you believe that then I've got some beautiful ocean-front property in Nevada that I'd like to sell you.

Playing an instrument--much like writing--is one of the ultimate tests of delayed gratification.  After all, you spend endless hours alone in a room, practicing for a goal that could be months or years away.  The only thing that gets you through is knowing that the when you reach the prize at the end, it's going to be worth it.  Otherwise, why would you torture yourself like this, right?  The answer lies in lesson #4.

4)  You have to love the work, even if it's only some of the time.  If you don't, you will be miserable.  After all, what if the end-goal turns out not to be as great as you expected?  Or what if you get on that stage and screw up so royally you can never show your face in music school again?  While it's important to grit your teeth and practice toward a goal, you also need to love the practice in and of itself.  Sure, I was never one of those kids who practiced until her fingers bled or her parents tore her away from the instrument, but there was a certain satisfaction that always came from a productive practice session.

Same with writing.  Of course you want to have some lofty dreams or goals to keep you motivated but in the end, if writing is painful for you, then maybe you should consider something that brings you more joy.

Because it all comes down to joy.  I write for those moments when the story suddenly clicks and makes sense or when characters surprise me.  I write even in those times when it seems more like work and less like fun.  I write because sooner or later, it stops feeling like practice and starts feeling like joy.

What about you?  What is it about writing that gives you joy?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

YA Cafe: Cover Love

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday (Saturday this week, sorry!) we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special:  What covers do you love?

I'll admit it, I'm quick to judge a book by its cover.  If a book looks cheesy or too "teeny-boppery" from the cover, I'm likely to set it back on the shelf.  I like high-concept covers.  You know, covers that capture what the book is about without spelling it out completely.  I love when designers use type in a clever way or play with photography.  Not to mention, I love book covers that I can read on the subway without people wondering "why is she reading that weird book?"

But enough about what types of covers I love; today I'm going to talk about something I don't love.  I profoundly dislike it--dare I say, hate?--when perfectly good hardcover designs get replaced with schmaltzy paperback designs.  Here's what I mean: (hardcovers on the left, paperbacks on the right).

Isn't this hardcover gorgeous?  It makes me just want to peel that wax seal open and read the book.  Also, small details on the cover link to elements of the story.  (That basset hound embossed in the seal is there for a reason.)  As the I read the story, I was delighted to notice the significance of these details.

Now check out the paperback redesign.  It looks so blah, so generic compared to the hardcover.  Sure, it's got those shiny award stickers on it, but couldn't they have put the stickers on the original and still used that design?  Not to mention, talk about a cluttered design.  I am not a fan.

Lest you think the only reason I dislike some covers is because they have people on them, here's an example of a hardcover-paperback pair where both show a person (in this case the protagonist).  One works for me, one doesn't.  Take a wild guess which is which.

What I don't like about the paperback is that we see a bit of the character's face and hair.  It leaves less room for the reader to imagine what that character looks like than does the hardcover.  The hardcover, on the other hand, gives us some hints but doesn't show us the character's face so a lot is still left to the imagination.

In terms of layout, the hardcover is a much cleaner, tighter design.  You can barely read the title on the paperback cover and the author's name practically disappears.  I might be going out on a limb here, but isn't the whole point of the cover for readers to be able to recognize the book?  If so, wouldn't it be crucial for the title and author's name to be readable?

Of the covers I'm discussing today, this is the only one where I haven't read the book yet.  If I saw these two covers on the shelf side-by-side, I would definitely reach for the hardcover and wouldn't even look twice at the paperback.  I mean, how unbelievable is that hardcover?  It's so disturbing and haunting and shows me what the book is about without telling the whole story.  It's deliciously creepy!

The paper back, on the other hand... um, seriously?  I don't even know what to say because this cover is so opposite to the essence and core of the hardcover.  All I know is that this looks generic and cheesy; this cover has no personality whatsoever.  I actually had to double-check to make sure these were covers for the same book because when I first saw them, I thought they couldn't possibly be telling the same story.

In the end, I don't understand why publishers feel they have to change these gorgeous hardcovers and replace them with generic-looking mass-market-y designs.  Wouldn't it be an added cost to redesign a cover?  (i.e. Investing more designer hours into the project, not to mention a possible photo shoot for new cover images.)  If they already have a beautiful cover that works, why redesign it to make it uglier and less appealing?  Or maybe these redesigns do have some appeal to teens--though I doubt it because teens are generally way smarter than adults and they wouldn't fall for gimmicky bells and whistles like these.  I'm really perplexed about this, so someone please explain it to me because I just don't understand.

Still craving more YA-licious book covers?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what covers you love!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Infringement, Fair Use and Derivative Works

One issue that comes up a lot for writers is whether we can use some piece of another artist's work in our own work.  The answer is: it's complicated.  There are three things at play that you would have to consider: infringement, fair use and whether or not what you're doing is considered a "derivative work."  Here's a quick rundown of these technical terms.

Infringement is when you take someone else's work or idea and use it as your own.  Fan fiction would often be considered infringement because you're taking characters that were created by another author.  Sure, you can write it for fun in the privacy of your home, but you won't be able to sell it.  Note also that just changing a few small details is not enough to make a character or a story your own.  There is an exception to infringement, though, and it's called "fair use."

Fair use is what you use when you write an English paper and you need to use quotes in the paper.  You're not paying the author you're quoting for the right to use his or her words, but because you're only using a short snippet and you're using it for academic purposes, it's OK.

There is another case where fair use comes into play and that's with humor.  If you're imitating an existing story or brand but are doing so as a parody, you may be able to claim "fair use."  One example is the imitation of McDonald's brand in the movie Coming to America.  The imitation restaurant is called McDowell's and it serves the Big Mic and Chicken Nukkets.  In this case, the very similarities between the real and imitation brands is what's being played for laughs.*

Derivative Works are any works derived from the original work.  In other words, if you own an existing work, you also retail rights to follow-on works in both that medium and other media.

For instance, suppose you own the rights to a novel.  You will also retain rights to sequel novels, plays, films scripts and films, audio books and translations of the original (provided you don't give these rights away).  This is one place where it can be invaluable to have an agent in your corner.  Your agent will help keep you from giving away all these rights when you sign a contract.

Take-home message: 1) Don't use pieces of work you don't have rights to, unless you're certain that you're covered by fair use (i.e. like when writing an English paper).  2) Have any doubts as to which rights you should hold onto?  Get an agent.

*In this example, McDowell's is an example of fair use with regard to a trademark, but fair use operates similarly with copyright as well.

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