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Your Character’s Birthday Wish

Visit the Writerly Play Studio and play around the edges of your work to get to know your character. Never heard of the WP Studio? Learn how Writerly Play thinking strategies supercharge your creativity here.

Whether you love your birthday or hate your birthday, it’s a day that celebrates you! That’s why it’s such an excellent opportunity to get to know a character. 

This month, I posted over at Smack Dab in the Middle on using birthdays as a character development tool. Check out the post here.

Or, if you want the cliff-notes edition, here’s a list of birthday-related questions to help you explore unexpected corners of your character’s personality.

On your character’s birthday:

1. What does she love to do?
2. Who does he spend time with? Does he prefer large groups or small ones?
3. Do her friends make her gifts, or are the gifts store-bought?
4. What do the gifts given reveal about him?
5. What does the reaction to the gifts reveal about her?
6. How does he change from birthday to birthday? What remains the same?
7. Does she plan her own birthday? If not, who plans the day? Is this what she would choose, were it up to her?
8. How does he feel about people singing happy birthday, or not?
9. What surprises come up on her birthday?
10. Which birthdays are most meaningful to him?

How do you use birthdays in your writing? Do you have favorite literary birthdays? Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter

The Shape of Words on a Page

Visit the Writerly Play Workshop and build your revision skill set. Never heard of the WP Workshop? Learn how Writerly Play thinking strategies supercharge your creativity here.

the shape of words on a page

Word after word on a page can easily lull our minds into numbness.

But when we see


after word

on a page

suddenly we see


A few summers ago, I took a revision workshop with Linda Sue Park. What an incredible experience! One of Linda’s strategies has become a standard part of my writing practice. She asked us to take a manuscript page and break it into lines. No line could be more than five or six words. With breathing room, it became immediately clear where prose could be tightened, where words were repetitive, or where weak verbs or nouns could be strengthened.

Somehow, when the shape of the words on the page changed, I could see my writing with new eyes.

It’s a simple but powerful tool. Many, many thanks to Linda Sue Park for adding such a transformative strategy to my bag of tricks!

Try This:

  1. Copy a page of your manuscript into a new document.
  2. Break the paragraphs into short lines of no more than six words each.
  3. Read through and finesse the sound, rhythm and tone of your words.
  4. Once you’ve revised the prose in this format, put the writing back into paragraph form.
  5. Do a before/after comparison. What do you notice?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights! Share below or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Writerly Play Attic: Develop Your Courage

Visit the Writerly Play Attic and work through a step-by-step activity to develop your courage. Never heard of the WP Attic? Learn how Writerly Play thinking strategies supercharge your creativity here.

I used to think fear was a weakness. I thought that maturity meant moving beyond fear. Whenever I felt fear, I switched into doubt-myself mode, consulting everyone around me for advice. If a person appeared fearless, I assumed they were also an expert.

It took me a long time to realize a number of important things:

  • Just because someone appears fearless doesn’t mean they are.
  • Innovators live outside their comfort zone, which means they face fear on a regular basis.
  • Fear isn’t rooted in a lack of knowledge, courage, or capacity.
  • If someone doesn’t feel fear now and then, she likely isn’t truly stretching herself.
  • When I push into and beyond my fear, I’m doing my job. I’m being a confident, capable leader.

When I was younger, I’d do a small, daring thing and feel slightly smug. Fear? Whatever. I’ve got this. Now, I’ve learned fear comes in many sizes. If I’m a tad anxious about doing a live video session, but I shrug my concern off and go for it, I’ve done a good thing, sure. But pushing past larger-scale fear usually costs more than momentary discomfort.

For instance, now that I’m running a non-profit organization, the stakes are high. If someone asks me, “Are you sure that new program will work?” answering, “Let’s give it our best try,” feels like walking onto a tightrope with no safety net. Taking steps forward means risking relationships, our reputation, and even putting people’s jobs on the line.

It’s important to calculate our risk-taking and to make wise decisions. However, I’ve learned that caution can lead to disaster, too. Too much caution can result in completely missed opportunities.

So, what are the practical steps to take to develop your courage?

1. Identify the challenge. Spend time exploring the actual situation and possible goal.

Here’s an example. Like many artists, I wrestle with how to make a living while staying true to my creative heart. It’s easy to make a snap decision about what I need to do. “If I win the Newberry, I’ll have it made!”

The trouble is, my snap-decision solutions tend to be out of my control and beyond my current reach. They create road-blocks rather than forward momentum. So, instead, what if I ask myself: What is my actual goal? Or, if that question doesn’t yield a helpful answer, I might ask: What might success look like?

Or if all else fails, I might ask myself a series of “why” questions:

“Why do I want to win the Newbery?”

“Because teachers will invite me to visit their classrooms to work with their young writers.”

“Why do I want to work with young writers?”

“Because I want to create meaningful experiences for kids who are like the kid I was …”

“Why else?”

“Because I can make a living being creative and also make a difference in the world.”

And, wha-la! I’ve landed at the heart of things.

2. Focus on a proactive question. Start with the question at the heart of your challenge and brainstorm solutions.

Our brains are like computers. When we put a question in, they go to work to solve the question we’ve asked. If we ask a proactive, expansive question, we are much more likely to end up with a workable solution.

In my case, I’d ask: How can I make a living being creative and also make a difference in the world? In the end, my solution may involve writing Newberry-worthy books and working with young writers. But, the landscape also opens up for other possibilities as well. No matter what, by asking a more open question, I’m more likely to find a solution that will work *right now* to keep me in motion toward those life-long dreams.

3. Choose a solution. Take the time you need to research, ask for advice, and review pros and cons. Then, make a firm decision.

When we’re afraid, we fuss and fret and keep our options open. However, solving a problem by moving in twenty directions won’t yield strong results. When we water down our efforts, we water down our progress. Once you’ve chosen a solution, give it an honest chance. Focus your effort on your plan and boldly go for it.

4. Start. Begin with the first possible action.

By starting with the first possible action, you avoid the procrastination that comes from exploring additional options, researching, fretting, planning, and generally over-preparing. No amount of pre-thinking will keep you from running into unexpected challenges. There is no perfect way to roll out your solution. So, since the process is going to be messy, you might as well start, right?

5. Keep moving. Keep taking the next obvious step, one after the other.

That’s it! This strategy may look straightforward and practical, but it is by no means easy. Expect detours and sink-holes. Be prepared to turn a corner only to run straight into fear yet again. Instead of running, reach out your hand. Invite fear to come along as you *keep moving*.

Many of you are facing your fear as we speak.

You’re pushing forward into the unknown creatively, personally, professionally. If that’s you, I want to say … I’m tremendously excited for you. I can’t wait to see what beautiful things you bring into the world because of your courage and determination. I’m excited for those of you who are about to tackle your fear, too.

I’ll be here, cheering you on, so don’t forget to share your progress with me. Not just the wins, either. I want to hear your story—the ups AND the downs. You can always share with me on the blog, or you can email me and tell me your story. Or, connect with me on Instagram or Twitter. Your story matters.

Here’s to you and your courageous heart.


How to Reach a Complex Goal


Do you have enormous goals on your mental or physical to-do list such as:

  • Learn how to podcast
  • Write a novel
  • Run a half-marathon
  • Learn to play the guitar

Projects such as these beg the question: Where should I start?

When learning to draw, the first task is to stop one’s mind from translating the concept “apple” into a symbol. We must see the real apple with all its curves and irregularities in order to accurately draw it.

In my experience, the same is true with goals. Our brains, amazing tools that they are, simplify complex projects into impossible-to-tackle placeholders. While we can pick up a guitar and start plucking strings, for most of us, the time spent isn’t likely to result in learning to play guitar.


  1. We haven’t clarified what we mean by “learn to play the guitar.”
  2. We don’t know where to start.
  3. We quickly lose heart when we can’t track or measure our progress.

Let’s turn these challenges into proactive steps, and see where they lead.

Clarify the Goal

In the Attic, we explore the heart of a project. In the Studio, we improvise to bring new possibilities into the world. However, the Workshop provides us with tools to give our loose idea-material structure. In the Workshop, one asks: What do I know? What do I need to know? What are the pieces of this project or this skill? Where might I start?

One major task of the Workshop is to determine the scope of our project. It’s one thing to learn to front a rock band, and an entirely other one to learn to strum campfire songs. When we clarify our project, we determine our focus. With focus, we can clearly see which actions will be most effective to help us reach our goal.

One of the best strategies for clarifying your project is to take a quiet moment, close your eyes, and picture success in detail.

  • What will the scene look like on the day you achieve this goal?
  • What will you see, hear, feel?
  • What will you be physically doing?

Once you have a clear picture, capture the highlights on paper. This scene becomes your destination point, and helps you determine which actions are relevant, and which are not.

Determine Where to Start

While we want our destination to be a firm location, with creative projects especially, the path to the goal can vary widely. Consider an open space with many trails that end at a lake. There may be four or five possible starting points, and various trails with scenic points along the way.

In the end, our experience of “hiking to the lake” is singular. No matter how much we plan a hike or a creative project, something is bound to surprise us along the way. Ideally, we want to create a plan with enough structure to keep us moving toward our ultimate goal, while leaving room for surprise.

Ask Yourself:

  • Where are my current circumstances with regard to this project?
  • What do I hope to learn along the way?
  • How much time and stamina do I have?

Track and Measure Progress Toward Your Goal

Each year when Society of Young Inklings begins the Inklings Book editorial process, we ask our mentors to choose a specific revision focus. For instance, the mentor and youth writer may focus on developing character through dialogue.

By focusing on dialogue, the youth writer sees improvement that can be specifically described. “My dialogue used to be x, and now it is y.” This clear growth builds confidence. While revising with a specific focus, writers often identify other weaknesses and fix them without becoming sidetracked. Contrast this approach with a general “I’ll fix everything that’s wrong” approach. You can see how rabbit trails and discouragement easily set in.

In order to track and measure your progress, be specific about what you’re tracking. Ask yourself:

  • What external milestones are essential along the way?

    Here, consider the achievements between start and finish, such as character profiles, a plot, a first draft, a critique session, a revision, etc.

  • What internal milestones are essential along the way?

    Here, refer to the question: What do I want to learn along the way? Break that goal into measurable steps. If you want to learn about developing believable characters, what is involved?

First Steps

If you do have a giant project on your to-do list, depending on your style, your first step may be to head into the Attic to figure out why this project is so important to you. Alternatively, your first step may be to hit the Studio to play around and find your general direction.

Somewhere, though, early on in the process, the Workshop becomes a necessary step. For most of us, the purpose of major projects such as writing a novel or running a half-marathon is to challenge ourselves to grow. Growth will happen naturally whether we make a plan or not, but we’re more likely to see the results we hope for if we understand what those results will look like—both externally and internally.

I look forward to hearing about your projects and successes! Make sure to share so we can cheer you on.

Writerly Play: Exploring the Workshop

Writerly Play: Exploring the Workshop

Today, we’re on our way to the Writerly Play Workshop.

If you’re joining this series mid-stream and wondering what in the world the Writerly Play Workshop is, you might find it helpful to start at the beginning.
If you’ve been reading along, you’re well aware that the Writerly Play Workshop is another of five mental spaces in the creative landscape of Writerly Play. I find it helpful to think of the Workshop in juxtaposition to the Studio. In fact, the Studio and the Workshop were the initial reason I realized I needed Writerly Play in the first place.

In the Writerly Play Workshop, you’re invited to think critically—developing ideas, revising, and practicing skills.

When I spend too much time in the Writerly Play Studio, my ideas spiral out of control, leading me into intriguing, but often illogical territory. When I spend too much time in the Workshop, my work bogs down under the weight of my critical eye. When I start wondering why I’ve poured my heart and time into a project that I’m starting to despise, I know I’ve been in the Writerly Play Workshop too long.
However, the even more disastrous situation for me was that I had knocked out the wall between the two rooms. My inner critic had clear access to throw darts at my idea balloons. In retaliation, my wild creativity tangled my outlines into rats’ nests. Something had to be done.
That’s why I recommend that you firmly close your Studio door, and march down the hall at least three or four doorways before you choose the best place for your Workshop. You need to be able to move between the rooms, but there should not, not, not be a trapdoor between the two.
So, what kind of doorway will invite your logical, analytical self out to play? Maybe you need a sleek fingerprint keypad, or a rubix cube puzzle lock. Choose the doorway that’s best for you, and then move on inside.

Look around. What gives your Writerly Play Workshop structure and that can-do feel?

Is it a wood shop filled with power tools? A crime-scene lab fit for Sherlock Holmes? Maybe you have a diagram wall, a microscope, a storyboard, or index cards, scissors and tape.
Even if your Writerly Play Workshop is filled with sawdust and other evidence of hard work, it still ought to feel organized. Here, you want to feel clear-minded enough to focus on one problem at a time. You want to feel patient, attentive, and most of all, optimistic. You’ll be thinking analytically, poking at your ideas, moving them around, and finding connections and holes. Optimism is important so that you can look with clear eyes for elements of your project that need further attention. If you don’t believe fully that you’re capable of finding solutions for any problems you uncover, you’ll either avoid the painful truth or turn inward with harsh criticism. Neither of these stances help us in making our best possible work.
The more you engage with Workshop thinking, the more well-crafted your work will be.

The core skills in the Writerly Play Workshop include:

  • Mapping a Plan
  • Structuring Ideas
  • Observing Closely
  • Practicing Strategies
  • Revising and Rethinking
  • Fine-Tuning
In order to play to your strengths while thinking in these ways, what tools, strategies or supplies ought to be in your Workshop? What tried-and-true strategies do you have? What kinds of tools or activities would you like to seek out?
Add to your toolkit or list. And if you’d like to explore some additional possibilities, here’s my recent list of Writerly Play Workshop tools and strategies.
What do you notice when looking at the Studio and the Workshop in juxtaposition? Do you have enough distance between these two mindsets in your creative process? Are there areas of potential growth for you in developing skills in one space or the other?
Tomorrow, in The Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play, we’re off to the Library, one of my favorite spaces of all!