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Author Archives: mkhutchins

About mkhutchins

MK Hutchins' short fiction appears in IGMS and Daily Science Fiction. Find her online at www.mkhutchins.com.

Adapting

One of the most creative tasks a writer pursues is finding time to write. Given that no two writers or life situations are exactly the same, it’s also an individualized pursuit. But here’s what works for me.

Once upon a time, I mostly wrote when I had a two hour block of relaxed, quiet time where I was well-rested, devoid of any headache, and feeling particularly creative. I wrote steadily, but slowly.

Then I had kids.  Two little boys.  So much for being well-rested.  Or knowing if I had two hours or two minutes to write.  Surely my productivity would crash.  Finding time to write seemed more daunting than fixing gaping plot holes.

But I discovered that I wrote just fine in five-minute bursts.  Indeed, my sleep-deprived brain seemed to handle that best.  Throughout the day, I’d plot and outline the next scene in my head.  I left my Word document open on the computer at all times.  When I could, I’d add a few paragraphs.  Sometimes I’d get lucky with miraculously coinciding naps and write madly for an hour solid.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I began creatively adapting my writing time to suit my current life demands instead of waiting for a perfect moment, I wrote a lot more.  Kids never stay the same age for very long, and as they’ve grown, I’ve practiced adapting my time over and over.

My family’s about to go through another big shift.  This will be my last post as a Gem State Writer blogger; we’re headed out of the Gem State, for happy employment reasons.  I’m going to have a new schedule and a new routine.  Finding time to write will require new solutions.

But that doesn’t scare me.  Just like plotting or characterization or prose, finding time to write is one more way to flex my creative muscles…and sometimes practice patience.

How do you balance your life demands — work, family, and other — to make room for writing?

P.S. Thanks for having me here on the blog.  It’s been amazingly fun.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Family, goals, time management, Writing Faster

 

What, Why, and How of Line Edits

Line edits have dominated my writing time of late.

What are Line Edits?  These are the sentence-level edits — trimming and rearranging words without losing content, clarity, or voice.

Why Line Edits?  I aim for what I’ve heard termed “window pane prose” — clean prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but displays the story to the reader.  Trimming unnecessary gunk allows the prose to flow smoother and the story to shine.

How to Line Edit? There are lots of ways to edit at the sentence level.  Reading out loud can be very helpful — the tongue trips over things the brain doesn’t.  Often I do this, but I tend to get wrapped up in the story and miss the trees for the forest.  Sometimes changing the font can help the manuscript look new.  I know some folks who start with the last sentence in the book and work their way to the front, but I’m not coordinated enough to do that.

So I keep a list of potential “problem” words, then search through the manuscript for every instance of it.  This helps me ignore the story and focus on the words.  My awesome husband recently programmed me a macro for Word to streamline the process, and kindly shared his work here.

I don’t always cut the words on my list.  They’re not bad words.  Sometimes they’re even the best word.  But I’m often able to find cleaner prose by cutting them.

Filtering Words: Wondered, Hoped, Thought, Realized, Considered, Could see/hear, The sound of, Saw, Watched, looked

I believe I have Janice Hardy’s excellent blog to thank for this list.  All of these words appear in my manuscript, but I cut most of them.  Often, these words act as a filter between the reader and the POV character, instead of letting POV pull its own weight:

Example: Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She realized she was late for the night shift again.

Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She was late for the night shift again.

Result: Cut two words, kept everything else.  Tighter POV. -2 words.

Example: Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  She thought about his offer.  She wondered if she’d be happy with him.  She could see that the pawn shop ring was gold, with a small diamond, inside a velvet box that looked fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  No, she shouldn’t accept — she never could convince herself that their relationship was anything more than a second-hand love in fine trappings.

Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  Could she be happy with him?  The small pawn-shop diamond and its gold band gleamed coldly in a velvet box fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  She should say no.  Their relationship had never felt like anything more than second-hand love in fine trappings.

Result: Rearranged the prose to let the description show time spent thinking and reinforce her emotional state.  -18 words.

Example: “I saw Rick proposing outside,” June said, handing Lizzie a fresh mug of coffee.  “Want to talk about it?”

Result: Without the “I saw”, this sentence would read like June is trying to relay new information to Lizzie, when Lizzie obviously knows this.  Clarity, content, and voice are the goal, so this stays.

Overused Words: was, were, just, very, a little, started, began, even

I’ve cobbled this list together over time, noting words that I either use too often, or that could often be replaced with stronger, better words.

Example: Lizzie was going to lose her job over this, but feeling badly about dumping the boss’ son just wasn’t going to pay the rent.

Lizzie would lose her job over this, but moping about dumping the boss’ son wouldn’t pay the rent.

Result: More clarity, -6 words.

Example: Lizzie started to drink a little of the coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She knew that she was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she would start applying for every job that she was qualified for.  Rick wasn’t in control of her life anymore.

Lizzie sipped her coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she’d apply for every job she could.  Rick didn’t control her life anymore.

Result: Note that while I cut a lot, I left the “just” in the dialogue, because deleting it didn’t make sense, and rewording it would sound stilted (“This is exactly what I needed”).  -15 words.

Going through the manuscript, cutting one or two words here and there takes time.  But in the end, I get a novel that’s easier on reader’s eyes.  Time well-spent.  The more I search for problematic words, the more my lazy brain refuses to type them in the first place.  Anyone else have a list of line edit words they keep?  Any other favorites to watch out for?

 
10 Comments

Posted by on June 13, 2013 in POV, Revising, writing craft

 

Rockets and Leaf-Mould

Two months ago, I was watching Youtube videos of rocket launches as research for a short story.  My kids, fascinated by the giant column of fire and smoke, joined me.  We chatted about rockets — what they are, what they’re used for, and where they go.

Today, the kiddos are still using blankets and bits of toys to build rocket ships, which they then ride to the moon.  It’s all highly imaginative.  But before they could imagine rockets, they needed that spark of information, that image of a column of fire blasting a cylinder of metal skyward.

Watching them reminds me of something J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about The Lord of the Rings:

 “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.”*

My children’s cobbled together rocket has been a marvelous reminder that simple every day adventure — like watching a Youtube clip — can grow into a journey of epic proportions.

*Carpenter, Humphrey.  J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.  p. 131.

 
11 Comments

Posted by on May 9, 2013 in Family, imagination, inspiration, research

 

Cookies and the Book Sale

As many of you here know, I recently sold my first book, Drift (details here).  Unsurprisingly, there’s been happy celebrating at my house, mostly in the form of tasty baked goods.  Good occasions call for good treats!

Despite a bounteous number of cookies, my day-to-day is largely the same.  I outline.  I write.  I revise.  I critique with my writer’s group.  I submit short stories.  All those skills and habits I’ve worked so diligently to develop are still used and improved upon.

But I write because I love writing.  I love tearing up a first draft into something semi-coherent.  I love line-editing and polishing later drafts into smooth prose.

Of course I’m excited for the day my book comes out.  I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to tell readers where to find it.  More celebratory delights will certainly face the awesome caramelizing power of a 350-degree oven and meet their doom of milk and gnashing teeth shortly thereafter.

But today?  Today I’m excited to dive into chapter three of a brand-new manuscript and wrestle out that next plot point.  Tomorrow I’ll be excited about chapter four.  And sometime down the road, I’ll be excited about streamlining the prose and marching through line edits.

What are you excited about writing today?

 

The Unexpected Outline

I’ve blogged here before about how my first crack at a novel was pounded out on a pilfered typewriter.  There was no stopping to edit, and certainly no outline.

This week, I’ve been working on a short story where I’ve meticulously outlined every scene.  I’m estimating the outline will be almost a fifth as long as the final manuscript.

What changed?  I don’t think outlining is inherently better or worse than winging it (I do something in between when drafting novels, now).  But for years, I thought I was simply not an outliner.  I’d written something freestyle, so surely everything I wrote should be done in that manner.

Little by little, I tried outlining.  I learned something: outlining is useful for me.  More useful than fretting at the keyboard without a road map.  It’s become an invaluable tool for my writing — one I wished I’d tried earlier.

One of the keys to writing well is figuring out what, in the sea of writing advice, works for you.  Writing is largely solitary.  There are, it seems, as many ways to write as there are writers.

I’ve tried suggestions, of course, that didn’t work.  I used to make police-style dossiers for characters per the advice of a writing book, but these always felt like middle school worksheets — and they never added the promised depth to my characters.  So I stopped.

I’ve heard authors rave about how writing is best done in multi-hour blocks.  Accordingly, I used to strive to write in such stretches, in a calm room, with a serene mind fully ready for writing.  I didn’t get much writing done.  Then I had kids and let go of the idea of calm hours alone all together.  I learned to write in ten-minute bursts, and discovered that I write better and more consistently in small chunks.

I imagine my process will continue to change, shifting little by little as I figure out what tools and techniques work well for me — or for a particular story.  And so today, I’m writing from a tight outline, something I thought I’d never do.  Oddly, it’s working fine.

Anyone else have a story about unexpected changes to the way you write?

 
13 Comments

Posted by on February 28, 2013 in writing, writing craft, Writing Faster

 

Through the Window: POV

WindowThis summer, we gave our 4-year-old a kid’s camera for his birthday.  I’ve seen plenty of portraits, and too many pictures of apartments as we’ve looked for places to live.  I have an idea of what photos ought to look like, and I know what subjects I’d snap a shutter at.

They weren’t the same things my 4-year-old photographed.  He took uncounted pictures of shadows across the carpet: shadows from the box fan, shadows from chairs, shadows from blinds.  He took a dozen more pictures through the window of his daddy driving off to work.  Despite standing on tip-toe, he captured as much windowsill as parking lot in his frame.

The photos of his brother are close-up, all eyes and nose, or just his toes peeking out from the blanket at nap time.  More pictures document the window in his bedroom, looking out to houses we’ve never stepped foot in.

I was surprised by these results.  I’d expected off-focus pictures like the ones I might take.  Instead, I saw photos where he missed his father, loved his brother, or wondered about what lay beyond his home.

These pictures still make me reflective about point-of-view, or POV — the person a story is told through, whether it’s first person (“I crossed the room”) or third (“Jane crossed the room”).

In the details and tone selected, exposition can describe the POV-character as much as it does setting, letting every word pull double weight.  No two people will describe a room the same way.  The person who notices the patterns of shadow on the carpet is not the same person who frets over dust on the windowsill.  Describing mysterious, unexplored houses beyond the window reveals a different POV character than a description of the thankfully cool morning air over a quiet town.

I’m glad that, through a camera, I was able to see snapshots through my child’s view.

 
12 Comments

Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Family, photography, POV

 

Steunenberg Trial and the Idea File

I recently went to the Idaho State Historical Museum.  I remembered some exhibits from previous trips, but a display on former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg caught my eye.  Had this been here before?  I have no idea.

The story inside the case was vivid — on December 30, 1905, Steunenberg was killed by a bomb placed on his gate.  Bits of aged, twisted metal from the bomb rested under the glass.  What had it looked like, hot from the explosion?  Professional hit man Harry Orchard was arrested days later.  Three men associated with Western Federation of Miners, believed to be Orchard’s employers, were kidnapped from Colorado and brought to Idaho for trial.  Abundant legal drama followed.

This story has been tumbling through my head.  What were these people’s real motivations?  What really happened?  There are a hundred different stories that could be written about this incident — indeed, as I utilized Google to check the date and names, each article gave a slightly different version of events, casting different characters as the heroes.

One trip to a museum, a hundred story ideas.  It seems like ideas for stories are everywhere — in oddly-written ads, in the news, in articles about scientific discoveries, in things my children say.  It seems like the only time I don’t have an idea for a new story is when I’ve just finished a project and need a new idea.

So, some time ago, I started keeping a file of just ideas.  I’ve added the Steunenberg trial there.  Maybe I’ll never use it.  But, when I finish a project, that idea — and a hundred others — will be waiting, put up like jars on a shelf.

Perhaps the best thing about an idea file is being able to mix two ideas together — I find fiction works best when there’s multiple things happening.  For example, a journey to recover lost treasure by itself is mildly interesting; so is a middle-aged hobbit with furry feet.  Put them both in the same book, and something magical happens.

Having an idea file is one of my favorite writing tools.  It means I always have something new to write.  It means when I have something that’s not-quite-exciting yet — like a treasure hunt — I can scroll through my ideas and find that middle-aged hobbit the story needs before it can get started.

What about you?  How do you find and organize ideas?

 
8 Comments

Posted by on December 12, 2012 in Boise, Idaho, imagination, research