Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Entries in inspiration (22)


Pretty much this

Imagination doesn’t just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving them, or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. Head teachers would call this escapism, but they would be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful, branch of writing there is. And this is why I don’t, and never would, write Real Books.

— Dianna Wynne Jones




How to disassemble a book in 29,341 easy steps

While I can’t say that the last four months of blog silence is due to non-stop Book 1 revision and/or Book 2 writing, I can say that I have made a crapton amount of progress on Book 1 revisions since my post-birthday(!!) writing retreat.

Which is to say that the word count issue that’s been hanging over my head like Damocles’ Sword is no longer an issue.

No, I haven’t gotten below 200,000 words. Yet. But I have steadily gnawed at that count for months now, and got down past 210k earlier this month. The night I reached that milestone, I refrained from running down the street at 4 AM in my Killer Rabbit Bunny Slippers screaming “TWO HUNDRED NINE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED THIRTY ONE!” at the top of my lungs in order to maintain my cover as a mild-mannered nerd. I did, however, indulge in a blackberry Hot Lips soda and a celebratory dance that would make Elaine Benes look like Michael Jackson.

Success tied to the elimination of words by the dozens is a death by a thousand papercuts, let me tell you. For almost two full months, I thought I was going to be stuck at 214k forever despite steady work. Down by 211 words, up by 218, down by 129, by 16, up by 10, down by 24, up by 113. I was cutting things, but changing so much that I needed to write all new material, as well. Overall, I cut out several thousand words during that time, but it always netted out at the end of each writing day to some ridiculous number of only two digits. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

One of the realizations that hit me while I was on my self-imposed writing retreat earlier this year is that I was going to have to rewrite the book. Again. It took some weeks for that to sink in, but as I took the plunge with the first couple of chapters, it became impossible to ignore. Revisions to the first few chapters necessitated bigger changes to the next few, and the next few, and rethinking some plotting and characterization and key details, and somewhere in there, denial turned to acceptance.

The good news is that I’m only a quarter of the way through and I’m already below 210k. That number includes many earlier revisions to later chapters, so it’s not strictly true that the count is going to continue to drop linearly as I keep going. But at this point, I feel confident not only that I’ll get below that all-important 2k, but that I’ll be well below it. This is A Very Good Thing.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that these newly revised chapters? They’re better. They’re making the book better, tighter, faster. That’s what revision is supposed to be, making the book better, and it is, and it’s making it easier to cut things that seemed impossible to cut before. I knew it as I worked on them, and preliminary feedback from a few people confirms that I’m right.

Not everything is magically better yet. There’s a whole book left to rewrite. And I still have a notebook full of plot problems and character issues to address, fixes to make, and timeline changes to correct. The kind of knotty problems that trigger my instinct to curl into a fetal position and mumble incoherently to myself. But thanks to my dear and delightful writing coach, Jen, I have a detailed and ambitious writing plan for the entirety of my vacation to address some of the biggest items in my notebook of problems. Said plan involves not just writing goals and agendas, but menu recommendations, art project suggestions, and costuming ideas. It is seriously amazing.

So, I’m off to write things down on index cards with different colored sharpies and affix them to fluorescent colored posterboards. I’ll keep you posted as I progress through the plan. Wish me luck.


Creative Retreat

view from a hotel room in a seaside townWith so many demands on my time, it’s become increasingly difficult to carve out large blocks of it for working on my book. So difficult, in fact, that I started to nurse a dream of holing up in a hotel room somewhere with my laptop and my story notes and work non-stop of my book. I could keep odd hours and stay in my comfy clothes and live off of cheese and crackers while I puzzled out how to pull apart my complicated story and put it back together again.

When real life kept intruding on my efforts to work on the big revision ideas that resulted from Jen’s feedback, pulling me away for days or even a week at a time, I decided the only way I was going to make the progress I’m determined to make was to turn that little hermit-y dream into a reality. So I booked a reservation at a mid-price hotel in a seaside town for three nights. On my reservation special requests, I wrote, “I’ll be on a self-imposed writing retreat. A great view for inspiration would be much appreciated.” The hotel very kindly obliged with a third floor corner room with views both south and west across water. At check-in, the clerk asked me if I was writing a book about their town. Sadly no, but I suspect their town will find its way into the story nonetheless.

The weather has kindly obliged, as well. The town was delightfully misty and fog-bound when I arrived and the forecast is for a satisfying winter storm coming in tomorrow. Just the thing I needed to feel all writerly.

And so here I am, story notes spread out, story files open, a cup of tea at hand. Let’s hope it’ll be a long, long night.


What a piece of work is man!

I can’t settle on a favorite — I love them all.

I started following the mystery of the paper sculptures created from books that started appearing in Edinburgh a few months ago, and they immediately sparked my creative fires, stoked to an extra brightness by curiosity. Who was leaving these hidden treasures? No one knew, no one saw them being carried in or put into place. How? How was this possible?

Aren’t they wonderful? I love this kind of guerilla creativity! Crafting something so amazing and delightful just for the sake of it is what the art of creation is all about, and it’s a desire I think we all have, to share something of ourselves with the world. Such important reminders that even though humanity can sometimes be a scourge, we may not be past redemption.

According to the update at the end of the post, the local paper claims to know the identity of the artist behind this whimsical mystery. But I’m with those who say they’d rather not know. That’s part of the charm, isn’t it? We need more mystery and delight in our daily lives.


This is how it starts

On my way to meet coworkers for lunch today, I drove past a wheelchair that appeared to be chained to a stop sign. I did a double-take: yep, definitely chained, to a stop sign, with a padlock and everything.

The wheelchair itself was empty, and there was no one else around, but there were well-used chair pads and stickers and bags hanging from the handle. Signs that it was someone’s primary location during the waking hours of the day.

The whole drive to the restaurant, I wondered about it. Where was the wheelchair’s occupant? Were they wheelchair-bound but not paralyzed? Had they gotten up out of the chair and walked away? And if they did, why? Why there, at that stop sign marking a low-traffic intersection, with the wheelchair parked on the edge of a high curb? If they didn’t, had someone carried them? Had they gone willingly? Had they been kidnapped? Carted off in an ambulance? And why the chain? Presumably so it wouldn’t be stolen, but why leave it there in the first place?

It occurred to me how someone who’s paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair truly is confined, without any need for walls or bars or anything. I mean, we spend millions and millions of dollars trying to keep people confined to a building with cement block walls and miles of razor wire-topped fences, but for someone whose only means of mobility is a wheelchair, it would take nothing more than a bike chain and padlock to doom them.

A snippet of a short story started to stir. A dark and gothic sort of story, one that would end with the main character, a man paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, chained to a post and left to die. He wouldn’t even have to be a criminal…. Perhaps he had crossed paths with a psychopath, one who didn’t go in for all that gruesome stabbing or strangling nonsense but still felt an urge to kill. Or he was a gambler who got in too deep, and since there was no point in kneecapping him, his bookie’s hired thugs got the easiest enforcement gig they’d ever been assigned. Maybe he was a mafia informant and someone ratted him out to the mob boss. Or maybe he was an eccentric millionaire in a big mansion with no relatives and a staff that he bullied relentlessly, and one day, his butler just had his fill of all the abuse.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have to be such a dark tale. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy, and had some family, but they were gold-digging layabouts and anxious to get their hands on his fortune. In that tale, maybe the story starts with him in his wheelchair, chained to a pole (or a tree? a fence? a broken down car, for a bit of ironic symbolism?), and it’s all about how he managed to save himself, and what he went through to survive.

Welcome to my brain. It’s scary in here.


Delivery is everything

More research for Book 2 as I push through another difficult section. Lots to learn, lots of tiny decisions to make that will make or break the conclusion I want, so that it’s like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded.

But in researching The Battle of Carrhae, I learned about the Parthian Shot, which I am delighted to now know.

The Parthian Shot was an archery maneuver performed on horseback by the Parthians (who lived in part of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), wherein the archer, at a full gallop, turned his body back to shoot behind him at the pursuing enemy (usually as part of a faked retreat, to lure the enemy into a flanking trap). You may remember that scene in The Two Towers, when the Rohirrim raid the Uruk-hai camp in the middle of the night (when Merry and Pippin make their escape into Fanghorn Forest)…there’s a scene where one of the Rohirrim raiders gallops by, turning and firing on an Uruk behind him as he gallops past. (One of the coolest scenes in the movie, IMO.)

It takes considerable skill to perform this maneuver, both as a horse rider and an archer, as you would expect. The horse must be guided strictly by the thighs, since both hands are otherwise occupied, and of course you must be able to sight and shoot from a very unnatural position while in motion, very quickly. When the Parthians perfected this maneuver, they did it without the benefit of saddles or stirrups, as neither had yet been invented.

The “Parthian Shot” also became a metaphor for delivery of an insult as the speaker departs:

    “With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.”
    —Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1886)

We know it now as the “parting shot”.


Prompt progress, week 10

Last Monday was the last workshop session. Bookended between prompts, we filled out an extensive feedback form and then after the break, Robyn passed out copies of the broadsheet — the mini-poster thing that includes a submission from everyone in the session — and then we all signed them in yearbook fashion, round robin style. Lots of fun, and just like the last day of school, except these were all good and talented writers so none of that “stay cool!” nonsense. We also received a regular copy of the broadsheet, as well as copy of their anthology from last year. Reading through it is both inspiring and humbling, both in the very best ways. What an amazing gift this program is to its participants, and in turn to our community.

The first prompt was a warm-up, but we had a little longer than usual — 7 minutes.

Prompts:  trust me                     most of all

“Trust me,” he said, holding out his hand, that mischievous twinkle in his eye almost daring her not to.

This is one of those moments that you read about in books, she thought to herself. The part where it says, ‘little did she know…’

The question was…was her story a tale of grand adventure? Perhaps with a smidge of romance, that happily ever after? Or with this story a tragedy, and this moment the beginning of the end? The literal turning point?

She pondered while he waited, hand still outstretched, and finally said….

Our final prompt was an 8 minute write

Prompts:  in this circle                  the last night

The last night, the house was mostly dark and quiet. No lights, because lights intimate happiness, contentment, and we were neither of those things. Quiet, because what do you say when your family of four is about to become a family of three?

Three and one, really, since sometimes it would be my brother and I and one of them at one place, then my brother and I and the other of them at the other place. More like two and one and one and that makes four. It’s how my brother learned addition and subtraction.

I learned multiplication and division. Multiplication of homes, of beds, of toasters and TV sets and favorite mugs. And later, of family members. Division of mine, of yours, of theirs.

But never ours again.


Prompt progress, week 9

We spent the first half of this week’s workshop doing the exercise that was originally planned for last week. We each picked a piece for review, then paired up and did more extended one-on-one feedback sessions. I chose the last piece I wrote in Week 3. I actually changed my mind about which piece to use at the last minute, but after the terrific feedback I received from my partner, I’m glad I did.

When we came back after the break, Robyn spread out a bunch of pictures on the table for us to look over and then choose from, much as we did in the second exercise of Week 6. She then passed around three envelopes that each had instructions: 1) Take 1 peach colored slip of paper; 2) Take 2 red slips of paper; and 3) Take 1 yellow slip of paper. We were then given the instruction that the main character in our photo (whomever we determined that to be) had to be experiencing/doing the action on the peach slip of paper, interacting with the person on the yellow slip of paper, and feeling/experiencing the emotions on the red slips of paper. From all of that, we had 20 minutes to write a piece that incorporated all of those things.

The picture I chose was of a symphony practice session, taken from just behind a violinist, looking over her shoulder toward the other side of the half-circle of players. You couldn’t see the violinist’s face, obviously, just enough of her instrument to know what it was and enough of the back of her head to assume it was a woman. You also couldn’t see many faces of the other musicians, with the exception of a man sitting across from her who looked to be holding a cello and looking at the conductor. He had longish blonde hair and was wearing green sneakers.

My slips of paper:  peach - “s/he rewrites a letter five different times”; yellow - “her/his closest friend”; red - “elated” and “agitated.

Who invited this conductor? His timing is atrocious, he can’t seem to tell the difference between the violins and the violas, and hasn’t anyone told him that screaming at us in German is pointless?

I’m grumpy, I know. I mean, a better mood wouldn’t make Incompetent German Conductor any less of a moron, but it would make it easier to sit through this session. Having to sit here, right across from Dave…who wouldn’t be agitated? I should’ve thought of that before we started dating, that if we broke up, I’d have to look at his stupid face and his stupid hair and his stupid green shoes all through practice. Look at him over there, acting like he’s paying attention. Like he even speaks German.

Not bad enough that I lost my boyfriend and my best friend all in one go, I had to make practice miserable for myself, too. “Don’t date him,” everyone told me. “It’ll just complicate everything.” But did I listen? Nooooo. Too caught up in the elation of that first kiss. Unexpected, something I didn’t even know I wanted until he kissed me. And then it was all singing birds and endless sunshine.

But then I had to go and write that damn letter and it all went to hell. Five times I rewrote that thing, and it never once occurred to me it would break us up.

We just had a few minutes left after everyone read their pieces, but one of the rules of Prompt is that the workshop stops at 8:30, so if we can fit in another exercise, we will. Which meant that for the next one, we had 45 seconds(!)…

Prompts:  across the bridge                     wait here

Across the bridge is my favorite part of my morning. Encased in clouds, in fog, in damp.


Prompt progress, week 8

[I missed week 7 due to illness, unfortunately.]

After the initial warm-up exercise, Robyn spread out a strange collection of random objects on the table: a thimble, a scrap of colorful cloth, a spool of red thread, a wine cork, a mostly-empty mini Tabasco bottle, a small wire whisk, a small toy fire engine, a small glass bottle, a little Statue of Liberty statue. Other objects, but I remember all of these because they’re the objects we each chose as our inspiration for that exercise. We were first to contemplate the entire miscellany before taking any particular object; as I list them all out now, I realize I could’ve come up with a good little piece about the whole collection instead of a single object.

But we all did choose an object and she gave us two prompts to choose between, as well. I picked the tiny Tabasco bottle. We had 15 minutes for this prompt.

Prompts:  the last time I saw it                    where did you get that

When they were young and still dating, every shared object took on a special significance, a story or a secret joke attached like an invisible tag that read: “Remember that time we…?” or “This is the thing you gave me the first time we….” Consequential things, these objects of unrecognizable value, things that would otherwise end up in a garbage can if not for the strange coincidence of being in the right place at the right time to be saved forever like valued heirlooms. Things that could in fact still end up in the garbage can someday if they ever break up, but it’s been more than 20 years now and that seems less and less likely.

She is rummaging through old boxes looking for something very particular, an object that does have recognizable value, when she comes across the mementos box. The one labeled “Men’s Toes” that itself is an inside joke they share. Inside, the corsage from their prom, the letters that traveled back and forth that one summer, the tiny empty Tabasco bottles she tucked in his coat pocket so he would never be without his favorite condiment whenever they went out. “Meal enhancement,” he called it.

There had been six bottles, all neatly packaged in a small red box. And here they all were, six empty bottles neatly packaged in their small red box. She turned it over in her hand, thinking about him as she studied the box with its worn corners and the small tear in the top flap. Thinking about the significance of these six bottles, priceless in a way that the rarest bottle of wine never could be.

She smiled, tucked the small red box in her pocket, and continued rummaging.

The second half of the workshop was intended to be a critique on a previous piece that we would work on in pairs, but after the initial process, the group decided to postpone that exercise until next week. So instead we did a final exercise using two prompts pulled from an envelope and had seven minutes to write.

Prompts:  In the middle of the road                  In the garden

Every time I look out my dining room window, I feel guilty. Two raised garden beds hold the skeletons of last year’s tomato vines that were never pulled and composted as they should’ve been.

“Should’ve” describes the whole damn garden. We “should’ve” started our seeds sooner. We “should’ve” watered more often. We “should’ve” reseeded after each rotation, and pulled the lettuce when it bolted and thinned the tomato vines down to just three before they took over the entire place.

But we didn’t and we didn’t and we didn’t. And then we started avoiding it like that embarrassing alcoholic uncle that everyone ignores when he drinks too much at family gatherings. Our garden, which had been — “should’ve” been — a source of sustenance and nurturing and pride became, through our neglect, that embarrassing problem we try to ignore.

We’ve been assigned the task of choosing a piece from one of the workshops that will go into a “broadside”, a collection of pieces from each participant in this workshop. I have a few I’m trying to decide between, but if you’ve been reading along as I’ve posted these and want to suggest your favorite, I’m open to suggestions. (Clicking the “prompt workshop” tag below will take you to all the entries related to this workshop, and all the posts with the pieces themselves.)


Prompt progress, week 6

This week involved reusing pieces we’d written in previous weeks in different ways, which I enjoyed greatly. I even felt good enough about all three of my pieces to read them in the group.

The first was a quick warm-up for 5 minutes. We were instructed to flip through our previously-written pieces in our notebooks, semi-randomly choose a page, and write down the last line on that page on a slip of paper. We then passed the slip of paper to the person on our left and the paper we received became the first line of our piece. The person next to me gave me an amazing line to work with.

prompt: Stop breathing breath of fire - breathe breath of clouds

Stop breathing breath of fire - breathe breath of clouds. Breath of wind and effervescent rain, of the distillation of the heavens .

Take a moment, a heartbeat. Think. Be. You are a thing of the stars, borne of the primal ingredients of the universe, and no boundaries can hold you.

For the next exercise, Robyn spread out a couple dozen pictures — almost all of which featured the ocean in some way — and we spent time poring over the various scenes depicted. She then played a soundscape of ocean sounds and instructed us to pick out any picture that particularly spoke to us. She also gave us two prompts if we wanted to use either one. We had 10 minutes for this exercise.

The picture I ended up using was a shot that looked like it was taken from the Seaside Promenade looking south toward the promontory, with the ocean only barely visible past the dunes at the right edge of the photo. The sky was overcast with low clouds, there were only a few people on the Promenade, and in the middle distance, a girl or woman in jeans, sweater, and vest was running toward the water.

prompts: when the tide came in                          on the horizon

She could see something just over the low, grassy dunes. Something that wasn’t right, though she couldn’t make it out from this vantage. It looked like a hill, but smooth and dark, no grass. And anyway, there was only sandy beach over there, no hills, dark or otherwise.

She glanced at the others walking the Promenade with her. None seemed to notice, everyone talking to each other or looking straight ahead instead of at the sea. Sharp wind prickled her face with blown sand, as if to discourage her from investigating. Probably nothing, she thought.

It moved. The hill…moved. She vaulted over the stone balustrade, stumbling as her feet hit the unstable sand. And then she was running and shouting for someone — anyone — to come, to help.

Figures, she thought. The first time I see a whale and it’s going to be a dead one on a beach.

For the last exercise, we picked a previous piece and picked out words or phrases that struck us in some way to form a kind of free-form poem. The poem part wasn’t the exercise, only a step. The idea was to then rework the piece by recycling it into something else entirely using the words we’d pulled out. What was interesting about the exercise was how pulling out certain words could form an entirely different theme or tone than the original piece had, or create a completely different story altogether.

We were given 20 minutes to put together the free form poem part that would become our prompt, and then write the piece itself. And although I loved how mine came out and that it was unquestionably the best one I did all evening, it’s too private to share here, unfortunately. So instead, I’m posting the words I pulled out in a free form poem that became the prompt for my piece.

The original piece I worked from was this one from week 3:

She hates coffee. Always has. Hates not just the taste, but the smell. Sacreligious in a city so reverent about its coffee roasts. Almost tragic, since he is a connoisseur of such things, and it’s a pleasure they can’t share.

But on the rainy mornings when the clouds sit so low that it’s hard to tell whether it’s the beginning of the day or the end, she loves the smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen the most.

It means he will be there, singing tunes from old musicals while he makes oatmeal — or perhaps, if she’s lucky the pancake recipe he created just for her — and their day will start slow and lazy and comforting. She will pad through the rain darkened house, all blue and gray, heading for that cheery yellow rectangle cast through the kitchen door, moving toward that light from death to life. Guided by the light, by the sound of his voice, and by the smell of coffee.

And this is what I pulled out to create a prompt poem (poem prompt?):

almost tragic
a pleasure they can’t share
whether it’s the beginning of the day or the end
rain-darkened house
cheery yellow rectangle
moving toward the light
from death to life
guided by the light