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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: March 2008

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Travel Clinic for the Writer-on-the-Move

Travel can bring unexpected writing opportunities and unexpected writing challenges. There should be travel-season clinics for writers, the way there are ski season clinics for skiers, to help us build up those write-anywhere muscles.

It would include exercises such as the following:

  1. To build focus: 15 minutes daily freewriting on your WIP, beginning in a distraction-free environment and moving on to coffee shops, park benches, and houses full of energetic children.

  2. To build sensory awareness: 1 minute exercises for noticing and recording sensory input--information from the eyes, ears, nose, fingertips, from inside and outside the body. Then-practice choosing one sensory impression that strikes a chord and use it as a writing prompt.

  3. To collect tools for travel: Assemble a tote bag with writing toys, such as colored pens, lovely lined notebooks, photographs, index cards, sticky flags, sketch pads. Take a 1 hour date with yourself to play with your newly collected writing supplies. Which inspire you? Based on your observations, hone the collection.

  4. To find alone time: List 10 possible places and times when you can escape to a place of your own, to reflect and recharge and, if you wish, write.

  5. To practice finding time together: Go out of your way to engage fully in a social event with family and friends. Notice your reactions. Notice the joys of connecting with other people (even if you, like many writers, are an off-the-chart introvert!) Remind yourself that great writing requires great living.

  6. Internet Odds and Ends: The final session would cover everything you need to know about how to connect to the internet in hotels, restaurants, cafes and shopping malls--including a primer about when connection is a help versus when it's a distraction from your real work.

Ah. I'd like to go to a clinic like this. It'd help me prepare emotionally for the high-speed world I usually enter when traveling. Maybe I'll hold a class of one!


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a brief hiatus...

I won't be posting for the next few days, because I think life is about to keep me VERY busy. Life as in a get-together with many, many family members to celebrate the marriage of the last kid in my husband's brood. Dave (age 45) is giving up his role as the family's token bachelor, which dismays my son, Robin, to no end. He was holding up Dave as his model of girl-free life. Oh, well. Robin might be changing his mind about girls, too.

Hee. He's going to kill me when he reads this!

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Revision: Knowing What to Cut #3

Have you started chopping words from your manuscript yet? If you haven't found any excess adverbs or dialog tags to to cut, try taking a look at your transitions. I think that no matter how far along I get on this writing road, I'll still have to take a conscious look at my transitions to avoid including excess information.

Here's an interesting exercise. Go through a great book (preferably one similar to your own) and write down the first and last lines in every chapter. I did this recently with Hilari Bell's Shield of Stars. Take a look:

  • Ch. 4 ending: "I'm not worried," said Weasel. "If we can defeat both Gabbo and the palace..., the Hidden don't stand a chance."

  • Ch. 5 beginning: "I hate nature," Weasel grumbled, scraping mud off his shoe with a stick.

Chapter 4 ends as the two protagonists optimistically discuss their plan to find a religious group called the Hidden; Chapter 5 begins as the city boy's optimism crashes into muddy reality. Bell skips the intermediate business where the two prepare for their trip, gather supplies, ask directions, head out of town. She doesn't even sum up the intervening time. Instead, she ends Ch. 4 with a catchy bit of dialog and skips to the middle of another scene to begin Ch. 5.

  • Ch. 7 ending: "You won't get caught," Arisa repeated, "because if you get caught, Justice Hollingsworth will hang."

  • Ch. 8 beginning: Weasel gazed at the guardsmen who lounged on the street in front of the warehouse.

Again, Bell ends one chapter with a discussion of what the characters face next--then begins the next chapter in the midst of that challenge. No intervening discussion of plans, how they wait nervously, etc. She cuts out all of the summary, character thoughts, and explanation that I'd be tempted to include here. And it's perfect.

Doing this exercise on a professional's work gives me a better view of my own chapter transitions--and a better idea of what is, and isn't essential. Give it a try!

:) Cheryl

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Revision: Knowing what to cut #2

Today's post continues thoughts on what to look for, and cut from, your manuscript during the rewrite process. The wordiness culprit of the day? Dialog tags.

You've probably heard the rule: in the land of dialog tags, fewer are usually better. When I revise dialog, my first step is simply to look for any tags that I can eliminate without causing confusion about who speaks when. That done, I read the scene aloud and ask myself a few questions:
  1. Are the speakers clear? (I know, checked that above, but it can always stand a double-check.)

  2. How's the language? Are the characters speaking like people, or does their speech sound too wordy or forced?

  3. Is the setting clear, or does the reader need more of a grounding in the scene?

For #2...well, that's a topic for another day. Crafting believable dialog is an art, easy for few and difficult for most of us. I'll come back to it later.

For #3: I find this question especially valuable because it's easy to forget about the characters' bodies and surroundings when I'm focused on what they're saying to each other. Boosting the reader's ability to "see" a scene doesn't take much. You can replace some of those endless "he saids/she saids" with a line of character description or action. For ex., "Albert said" might become "Albert hitched his backpack strap higher on his shoulder." Of course, this adds more words--so does it count as cutting? Yep, because adding these snippets of setting and character info helps you avoid lengthy description dumps when the scene begins.

Rewriting is where your scene comes to life. Have fun tweaking!

:) Cheryl (who's still deep in rewriting Juggling the Keystone, which has plenty of words worth cutting!)

PS--Pictured is my wonderful, comfortable Sensa pen, highly recommended for anyone else who writes longhand. Ten pages a day longhand could make anyone's hand hurt, but not with this beauty!
PPS--My son, Robin, wants me to credit him for the photo. In fact, I should credit him for a lot of the photos I use--he's my resident photographer of unusual perspectives :).



Revision: Knowing what to cut

I'm one of those writers who tends to overwrite in the first draft and cut, cut, cut in later versions. For the next few posts, I'll take a look at things I look for in--and cut from--my manuscript during rewrites. First up to bat? The dreaded adverb...

Adverbs: Although the occasional adverb can spice up a paragraph quite nicely (grin,) my writing can do without most of them. Whenever I find an adverb, I ask myself two questions. First, does it tell the reader anything new? For ex:

"Screw you!" she said angrily.

Does "angrily" add to the scene? I think not. The words and exclamation point speak for themselves! If I wanted, I could use a stronger verb to make my point:

"Screw you," she hissed/grated/yelled/laughed.

If I decide that the adverb DOES give the reader new information, my next question is whether I can convey that information by choosing a stronger verb. For ex:

She sat on the sofa wearily.

This gets the point across--but I can make the same point by using a stronger verb:

She collapsed/sprawled/slumped on the sofa.

Each verb brings its own nuances of tone and meaning to the paragraph, painting a slightly different picture.

Rewriting gets easier--and better--with practice, just like most aspects of writing. I like that. Of course, it means that I've just added one of my books back onto my rewrite list. When I took another look at it, I realized that I've learned a bit more about chopping since its last revision! Oh, well....

:) Cheryl



Vision control

Okay: you've done that writing exercise where you envision what your writing success looks like. You've pared down your writing projects into a few concrete goals. Or maybe you just slapped your goals onto an index card on Jan. 1 and forgot about them. Either way, how are your goals faring now that it's mid-March?

I've found that I need regular "vision control" in order to keep my goals in sight and in working order. There are lots of great tools for organizing your writing life; I'm going to share one that works for me. Not only that, but it's worked for me for six or seven months straight--it's not one of those methods-that-look-cool-until-you-drop-it a few weeks later.

My tool? The Planner Pad (

I know, it looks like a lot of other calendar/organizers--but here's what I like. It has space for 7 lists across the top. I've titled mine: Writing, Personal, Home, School, Errands, Emails/Calls, and Contract Writing. In each list, I record all the stuff I want to work on in the coming week. For instance, under Writing, this week reads: edit JTKS, write new scene, craft-related reading, blog, outline science book.

Next: the bottom half of the page is a planning/appointment area--7 days, each with one line each for 7:00 am to 8:00 pm. That's where I fill in appointments that have to happen at particular times. It's also where I schedule time to work on the projects listed across the top of the page. Each day also includes its own to-do area, so that you can funnel the items on the top lists into actual spots on the calendar.

Sounds complicated when I write it out here, but it's not. And it's great for those of us who need a solid, paper planner in our hands (which, I've noticed, quite a few writers do.) It's low-tech, it's simple, and it's flexible...all of which are good for me.

If it sounds like it might be a useful tool for you, check them out. The Planner Pad company didn't even pay me to suggest it :).


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Crafting your writing vision a la Cynthia Morris

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop with creativity coach Cynthia Morris. The topic: creating your writing goals. But I took home more than a set of goals. I took home a renewed vision for where I want to go as a writer.

We started the afternoon by free-writing about what our versions of success might look like. (This and other exercises appear in her e-book, Create Your Writer's Life, It's a nice tool for clarifying your own writing vision.)

I've done the exercise before, but this time was a little different. I'm farther along the writing road, for one thing. I know what I like to write: science articles and books for kids, middle grade fiction (especially fantasy,) and a dabbling of YA. I know that I need to balance those heart-projects, which have lengthy payoff times, with projects that pay in a more timely fashion. In fact, that's my current writing struggle: how to do my "paying" work while remaining connected to my "heart" work.

The vision exercise helped me to realize that I am, in fact, on the road to where I want to go. It also helped me to see something I forget, sometimes. The paying work I do now is my day job—most writers-in-progress have those. It’s okay to give the “day job” its share of my time, but I need to commit time to other writing as well.

It’s also kind of cool to paint a mental picture of what “success” will look like for me one day. It helps me remember: hey, I’m going somewhere!
Next time you feel like your writing career is a fuzzy spot on the horizon, try this exercise. It's encouraging and fun--and it helps you see your next step.

:) Cheryl

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Great publishing quote...

From Heather Sellers' Chapter after Chapter:

Publication isn't meaningful in and of itself. Writing is meaningful. Your work deserves your best energy. It's essential to have separate physical and mental spaces for writing and publishing. And it's just as vital to recognize that publishing your work involves getting your work rejected. It's a process, not a drama. Rejection is, after all, simply mail.



Rejection Remedies, Take 2

Just realized I forgot to mention the absolute best remedy for rejection--ACCEPTANCE! And you can't get those acceptances if you don't keep submitting.

In a kind twist of fate, I received good news in the mailbox today (three hours after my bad news email.) I'm in the midst of a mad-dash rewrite of another midgrade fantasy novel, Juggling the Keystone--and it's one of the top three finalists for this year's Paul Gillette Writing Contest.

Woo-hoo! Thanks, God!


Rejection Remedies

Today's news: just received a "decline" email on one of my submissions. An extremely nice decline, but still. Bummer.

I hate rejections. Who doesn't? But we all know--intellectually, if not emotionally--that they're part and parcel of the writing business. When I started writing for magazines, I received plenty of those "Dear Author" letters. Eventually, they moved on to "Dear Cheryl, We like your writing, but...." and (finally) to the "Please sign below to sell your piece titled __________ to us because we love you!!" (Okay, maybe that's not word for word, but you get the idea.)

I'm working through the same process in the book market. First I received "Dear Author" letters; next I moved on to the "Dear Cheryl, this has some fun writing, but...." I know, it's part of the process, but like I said before--bummer.

Writing must go on, though, so what's a girl to do? Here are a few rejection remedies that work for me:
  1. Take 10 minutes to be sad (aka, hugging the poodle.)

  2. Remind myself of the above truths: Writing is a process. I'm on the right road and doing the right things. Be patient.

  3. Gifts for me: Raised glazed donuts work for me. Hey, I get to pat myself on the back for sending my stuff out into the wide, wide world!

  4. Gifts for my muse: I like to promise my WIP a few uninterrupted hours to play with a character's backstory or dream up crazy plot twists.

  5. Jump back into writing: The search for publication is a necessary evil (if you want to be published, that is) but it doesn't take away from the joy of putting words together.

  6. Share: Lucky for me, I have a delightful group of fellow writers who share disappointments and celebrations with me. Maybe I received a decline, but hey, one of my writing buddies just got a contract on her beautiful nf book!

There--all better. Have any rejection remedies of your own? Please share!


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Dressing for the Page

Today's the last day to voice your opinion on how to dress for writing sprees. So far, "Neat and Presentable" is winning with 3 votes, but "Full Professional Get-Up" (s.a. heels) takes second with 2 votes. No one has yet admitted to writing in the buff.

If you want to speak out on writers' fashions or lack thereof, scroll down to the bottom of the page. It's quick! It's fun! It's easy! (Wow, sounds like I'm trolling for a date...sorry, just avoiding some real work for the moment!)


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Do-Nothing Time, take 2

Sunday's rolled around--and I think it's the only reason I've stopped running around like crazy. This has been an exceptionally busy week (I'm not complaining--I'm busy with tasks and projects I've chosen) and when I get too busy, my days start to blur together.

My creative vision starts to get blurry, also.

Today, I'm taking my own advice and grabbing a few hours of do-nothing time. It will be a short block, because I have family to visit with; but I expect I can disappear in my room for an hour or two. I think today's perfect afternoon involves gifts for body, heart, and mind:

  • BODY...

  • an open window, to let in the smell of spring

  • an alpaca blanket bright with colors from Peru

  • HEART...

  • Lily, inspirational poodle extraordinaire (of course)

  • a nap in the sunshine (best kind)

  • MIND...

  • time to journal about the novel I'm rewriting, to tease apart the story threads and play with them

  • quality alone time with some exercises I want to re-visit in Chapter after Chapter

Sounds like I'm doing things during my do-nothing time...but not really. I'm leaving space in my life to rest, recharge and, most important, hear my own heart. It's lovely. Try it!

:) Cheryl

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Ye happy question (???)

Sometimes, when I get a whirlwind of blog ideas but don't have time to write them all, I'll create a string of new entries with titles and no content. The plan is to write them later, when I have more time.

The system works pretty well for me. When I sit down to write an entry, titles like "Great writing craft books" and "Report on SCBWI workshop" jog my memory, so I don't forget to cover great topics.

Every once in a while, though, I re-discover a title that completely confuses me. Today's, for instance. What would I write about that I'd title "Ye happy question"? I can't imagine! But it's kind of fun to try to figure out.

So today I'll be listing possible "happy questions" for myself. It promises to be entertaining, and possibly even encouraging. What happy questions can you ask today?

Happy writing!


PS--My favorite question so far is: Would you like lucuma or banana flavored ice cream? Ah, I miss Peruvian ice cream. Best in the world.



Should you blog? --continued--

Yesterday, I told you to look at why you wanted to blog when thinking about whether you should blog. Well, here are a few "why's" to consider:

  1. Establish a web presence: blogging is an easy, inexpensive way to showcase your writing and establish a professional-looking web presence.

  2. Build a platform: for the nf writer, blogging is a great way to establish credibility in your subject. An online following gives a boost to any book proposal.

  3. Sell something: if you're selling an e-book, coaching, editing, etc., blogging lets you showcase your work and tempt people into buying more.

  4. Writing discipline: blogging calls you to come up with and develop ideas on a regular basis--a terrif writing discipline!

  5. Create a record: some people blog to record a school experience, the publication journey, a backpacking trip through Europe... Some topics are more exciting than others. Consider your target audience and write for them.

  6. Get a job: If you have great, tight writing on high-interest topics, who knows? You might land yourself a column or other writing gig.

  7. Give back to the world: some writers (bless them) blog to share their insight with those of us who aren't quite as far along in our careers. If you have info to share just because you're a great person, that's an awesome reason to blog.

  8. Connection: blogging is a great way to connect with other people--readers, writers, poodle owners. This can be an unexpected blogging bonus or it can be your primary blogging purpose.
:) Cheryl

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Reasons to blog

It seems as if I've been hearing lots of blog-related discussions lately--in critique groups, in online groups, in writing workshops. The question I hear most often is: should I blog?

So Lily (inspirational poodle extraordinaire) and I are here to answer that question. Should you blog? Maybe--but you're asking the wrong question. The real question is: Why should you blog (instead of, say, rubbing the poodle's tummy?)

Writing a blog takes a fair bit of time and effort, so if you're going to make the commitment you need to understand your reasons. Besides, no one wants to read a blog that doesn't have a clear purpose (except maybe your mother.) The best blogs are those that know what they're about. Here are some examples:
Okay--I've given you a random list of blogs-with-a-purpose. They're successful blogs because they offer something to readers: information, humor, industry news. What's that have to do with why you want to blog?

Well, take a deeper look. What do the authors of these blogs gain in return for their effort?

A. Suen gets name recognition in the children's writing field, which has to be a good thing for someone who teaches children's writing. Cynthia Morris's blog helps her establish her credibility as a creativity coach. If you read her blog, you see she knows what she's talking about. Hey, maybe you'll even buy one of her e-books. (And she's building a platform...but I'm avoiding that buzz word for today.)

The Guide's blog? Well, they sell those hefty Guide to Literary Agents books, so if you like what you find online, maybe you'll order the guide.

Caryn gets a regular writing discipline from her blog, a place to share her writing, a web presence, and--because someone read her blog who was looking for a writer--she got a writing gig as a bonus.

So...should you blog? Maybe. First, you should figure out why--and if blogging can help you achieve that aim, go for it!

Otherwise, take the poodle for a walk. She's feeling neglected!

:) Cheryl

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Opinion on Heels? Vote below!

I'm trying out the new "poll" feature on for your writerly fashion choices below. :)

Writing in Heels

Today is day #3 of this month's book-in-a-week challenge. I've written 20 pages so far out of my 50 pg goal and I think it's time to raise a very important writing question: is it a good idea to write in heels?

I know, weird concept, but I bought these killer suede lace-up pumps with 4 inch heels. I kid you not--they're the highest heeled shoes I've ever owned. They're great. Not the most comfortable walking shoes, sure, but definitely comfy in the heels department. And I wore them for yesterday's writing stint. So--straight from Cheryl--here are the pros and cons of writing in heels:

  1. Feelings of Professionalism-PRO: Maybe it's lame, but I feel more like a professional writer-type person when dressed up. Especially in heels.

  2. Butt-in-Chair Factor-PRO: It's much more difficult to flee the writing scene when wearing 4 inch heels. They provide an ongoing reminder to stay put (key for us distractable types!)

  3. Confidence Factor-PRO: If, by some miracle, an agent were to call during my writing session (and yes, I'd interrupt writing to take an agent's call and will be available 9-12.30 every morning, MST, just in case an agent reads this and wants to give me a call)....Well, I'll feel much better talking to said agent in killer black heels than in, say, my pj's (also inestimable writing attire.)

  4. Goofy Factor-CON: I'm not sure how, but these heels bring out both the professional and the goofball in me. I feel a little like a kindergartner playing dress-up. But maybe that's good. After all, I do write for kids!

  5. Walking Comfort-CON: I can't break for an impromptu creativity walk while wearing 4 inch heels. Nope, not even a creativity ramble. Creativity walks are essential to my writing process long term, but produce fewer words on the page short term. So maybe this is actually a pro (see #2.)

Now, if I were working 9 to 5 in a skirt and heels, I wouldn't raise this question. Comfort would rule in my writing attire. But since I don't (work 9 to 5 in a skirt and heels) those killer pumps may need to come out every once in a while....

So tell me--what d'ya wear when you write?

:) Cheryl

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Thought for the day: CREEP

I finally discovered the writer’s worst enemy: Creep. Cheryl’s unofficial definition? Life’s insidious encroachment onto the writer’s zone.

Heather Sellers introduced me to the concept in her book Chapter after Chapter. (Great writing inspiration book, BTW. If you haven’t read it—do!) In it, she writes:

…most people, especially on their first book, struggle with a terrible insidious mental weed called Creep. If you don’t surround yourself with your book, you risk it creeping away from you—or you unintentionally creeping away from it. Creep is bad, and it’s as common as the common cold.

Keeping up writing momentum can be tough, especially for those who have other jobs (you know, raising kids, making sure the house passes minimum health standards; plus whatever you do to bring in cash.) Somehow, the rest of life tends to…well…creep into writing time and energy. Since writing time can be somewhat flexible, I find that it gets pushed aside too often for things like doctor appointments, editing jobs, even (horror) laundry.

So what’s a writer to do? Must we succumb to the inevitability of entropy as applied to the writing life? ;) Nah. My point is—be aware of Creep. Identify it when it begins, nip it ASAP, and set some ground rules to counter its effects. Learn to keep writing a priority. Practice saying “no” to inessentials. And most important, when life creeps into writing time, pay yourself back the lost hours.

Let’s root out Creep!


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Do-nothing time

Cheryl’s definition of a perfect afternoon: curling up in a mega-armchair with a poodle, anise tea, a Buttercream-scented candle, a plush blanket—and nothin’ I have to do.

It’s especially delicious on a crazy weather day like today. When I left the house this morning, blizzard conditions ruled. Two inches of snow fell in approximately two minutes. When I headed home a few hours later, the roads were barely damp. There’s still a wicked wind, though, doing its best to rearrange the remaining white stuff; and the clouds are so low, half the city seems to have disappeared. It’s a good afternoon to be inside, cozy and warm and peaceful.

I know this sounds crazy in today’s fast-paced world, but I actually try to make Sunday a day of rest around here. It’s extremely freeing to have one day without expectations or demands. (Well, okay, there are still some demands—this morning’s kids’ program, for one, and various activities like violin concerts and birthday parties….) But for at least a few hours, I get to chill out. I recharge and reflect.

What would you do with an unscheduled time chunk? And I don’t mean the Saturday afternoon let’s-squeeze-in-an-hour-of-writing-time kind of unscheduled. I mean the swinging-in-the-hammock-watching-the-clouds kind. No TV, no e-mail, no computer—maybe a pen and notebook, but only if you feel like it. Maybe a good book to read.

Here’s what I think: writers need time doing nothing. That’s when the mind gets a chance to stop spinning in a directed fashion. It’s when all those “shoulds” and “have-to’s” drift away. It’s when the brain, free of all its usual clutter, plays with new ideas. Take some doing-nothing time today. I think you’ll like it!


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