Bonnie Neubauer is the author of The Write-Brain Workbook and Take Ten for Writers, as well as the creator of Story Spinner, a handheld writer’s wheel. She loves living in the land of edutainment, where learning is always fun and play is educational. That’s why her creative writing exercises feel like word games rather than school assignments. Bonnie enjoys presenting her fun and funny writing workshops to folks of all ages—because it’s never too late or too early to pick up a pen and fly with it. When she’s not dreaming up writing exercises, Bonnie can be found in her home office brainstorming ideas for board games, or at the kitchen table inflicting the prototypes of these games on her ever-patient, good-humored, and loving husband, Gil. For more free writing exercises to keep up your writing momentum, visit Bonnie’s website at www.BonnieNeubauer.com.
You know, it’s rather simple. Basically I take two (or more) things I see, hear, feel, taste, smell, love, want, own, fear, enjoy, or know about and then combine them to form a third. I use the formula 1+1=3. Maybe it will be clearer, especially to math teachers who are probably cringing right now, if I give you an example: I had a cardboard toy when I was a kid that had 3 concentric wheels. The outer wheel had eyes, foreheads, and hair; the middle one had pictures of noses; and the third wheel had pictures of mouths and chins. When you turned the wheels you could make all sorts of funny and odd face combinations. (That’s #1) Add to that my desire to always have a ton of new creative writing exercises at my fingertips to keep my pen moving (the second #1). And, voila, you get Story Spinner, (#3, a totally new idea), a handheld tool with 3 wheels (settings, words, starting phrases) that I created. It generates millions of creative writing exercises. Inventors use the 1+1=3 formula all the time. Writers do, too, like when you combine a personality trait from your best friend with a physical trait from an elementary school teacher and you get a third person, a new character.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
The more you enjoy writing, the more you will write. And the more you write, the better you write. So do what your writer-self likes to make or keep your writing time enjoyable.
In other words, if you seem to be most prolific when you write while on vacation at the beach, but it happens to be the middle of January and you live in Wisconsin, bring the beach to you. Crank up the heat, sit on a beach towel, play a relaxation CD with ocean wave sounds, and put on some suntan lotion. Then write. Make it fun and you will do it more often.
What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
I think writers sometimes forget that journalism and publishing are businesses. When you send your work out into the world it’s not just your writing that’s being judged, it’s also your professionalism. Every transaction and interaction should be approached like a job interview where you put your best foot forward at all times.
How did you find your agent, and do you have advice for readers on how to find an agent of their own?
I met my agent at a conference for self-publisher writers. I gave my workshop and then her presentation immediately followed so I decided to sit in. She was warm, inviting, gentle, wise, enthusiastic, and very sharp. I was pretty sure I wanted her to represent me. So I got in line with all the attendees to schedule a 10-minute session with her. The only slot she had open was the next day when my husband and I had other plans. Needless to say, I broke the plans. In our meeting, when she asked lots of questions about my life goals before she even asked about my book, I knew my instincts were right. She suggested I send her my proposal and that she’d get back to me before the winter holidays. Right before Christmas she called me. What a great present that was.
It’s important to remember, when doing an agent search, that it’s a relationship you are seeking. A two-way street, if you will. You definitely want an agent who represents your genre and who is enthusiastic about your book. But you also need to make sure you feel there is some sort of compatibility between the two of you. That’s why it’s good to meet agents in person. The easiest way is to go to a writer’s conference.
Here’s a funny aside to the story about meeting my agent: At the same conference where I met her, there was a very nice woman from Writer’s Digest. Even though she was quiet and probably very approachable, I was totally intimidated. I mean, it was WD, the ultimate resource and the Holy Grail for someone who wanted to have a writing book published. I just couldn’t think of a single thing to say other than compliment her on her great employer, and I didn’t even do that. When my agent submitted the proposal for The Write-Brain Workbook, it went right to this woman’s desk because she was, of all things, WD’s acquisitions editor! Good thing she didn’t take my lack of networking and my missed marketing opportunity and use them against me. I now make it a point to chat with everyone at conferences, and everywhere I go. You never know who they are, who they might know, or what you can learn from them.
Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
Unlike choosing an agent, you are usually assigned an editor. I have had the lucky honor of working with the same wonderful editor for both WBWB and Take Ten. I like to assume this repeat relationship means she enjoyed working with me, too, or I probably would have ended up with someone else. That said, I can confidently offer at least one tip on how this happened. I make it a priority to hand in things before the deadline as often as possible. I am sure this gains me lots of brownie points because I take some pressure off her pressure cooker of a job. I am sure she will be reading this, so I think I will quit while I am ahead.
What is the biggest challenge you faced while writing Take Ten for Writers?
The biggest challenge came very early on. I envisioned Take Ten as a deck of big cards and a 10-sided die because all the exercises have ten options, all packaged inside a square box that looked like a child’s playing block. I wanted it to be called Writer’s Block Blocker. Writer’s Digest didn’t have the capabilities to publish such an item, so they rejected it. It took a couple weeks for me to get over the disappointment, but I really liked the exercises it contained, so I went back to the drawing board. (There’s no such thing as a writing board, is there?) And then, one morning in the shower (where I do most of my best thinking), I realized that it would be very simple to turn the exercises into a book of 10-minute writing exercises that can each be done ten different times. Once I started rewording and reformatting the exercises, I realized they were very well-suited for a book and that it was a great follow-up to The Write-Brain Workbook. Now that it is a book, I can’t imagine it as cards. What great proof this is to not be married to your ideas or words and that rejection can often lead to something even better.
You encourage writers to write no matter what. Have you ever had a time when you just couldn’t think of ANYTHING to write?
Yes, yes, yes. And that’s when I practice what I preach. I put classical music on the CD player, sit at my desk with pen in hand in front of a legal pad of paper, create a new exercise for myself, and then set a timer for 10 minutes and write. If I don’t feel unblocked after that, I do it again and again. Sometimes it can take 2 or 3 days of doing this before what I really want to write comes to the surface. But it always does. And I find great comfort in knowing that the key to getting unblocked is to write.
The reason I create a new exercise for myself rather than use one from one of my books is that I need to be totally blank when I start. That means no expectations or judgments about the writing whatsoever. All the exercises in the books have already been through my mental mill. So usually I open a book or magazine to a page, close my eyes, drop my finger on a phrase, image, or title, and write from that. I also use the online Story Spinner on my website. There are so many variables for starters, settings, and words, that the combination it spins is always fresh and new for me.
When I am not in creative mode I feel off, kind of ornery, so it’s very important that I don’t let more than a day go by without doing something creative. It doesn’t have to be writing, though. It can be making tie dye socks or inventing a board game. All of these keep my momentum going.
What did you enjoy most when it comes to putting together these books?
The best part, without a doubt, was receiving the packages of designed pages that my editor snail mailed to me as they were completed. There’s an entire army of amazingly talented people who turn my words of black type on white paper into the dynamic, colorful, and inviting works of art that you see in the book. No matter what type of day I was having, when I saw one of those large F+W envelopes waiting for me, I shifted into excited overdrive. It was so thrilling to see what they came up with for each page. And if I can turn the tables for a minute, I would love to ask them how they come up with so many ways to make the exercises come alive.
What piece of writing are you most proud of?
My first instinct is to say The Write-Brain Workbook. For years I had looked at the shelves in bookstores imagining my book there. Seeing WBWB for the first time in a bookstore was an amazing and thrilling moment. But when it comes to pride over an actual piece of writing, I would have to say that it is excerpts from a never completed novel called Carly’s Diary. As I was writing it, I read the pieces aloud to a writing group that met at a local bookstore. One of the members of the group loved the stories so much he told a non-writer business acquaintance about them. That guy, upon hearing the words, “There’s a cute little Jewish girl who writes the funniest stories about a 12-year old girl,” knew he had to go to the writing group because he had a feeling he was going to marry the writer. He did. And three years later we got married at that same bookstore.
How did you manage to come up with 365 different writing exercises in The Write-Brain Workbook?
I love this question because I am in awe of people who can take one idea and stick with it for 365 pages and at the end, have a novel, memoir or other book. That seems totally daunting to me! My brain is wired for short-attention-span production of ideas. Once I am on a tear, I can’t stop. For example, one day I decided I wanted to come up with some Halloween costumes for friends based on word plays, also known as punny costumes. Within hours I had dozens and by the end of a couple weeks I had descriptions of hundreds and hundreds of costumes. It gets out of control sometimes, but it’s always fun for me (but less so for my husband who has to hear about all the ideas as they come.) When I feel I have exhausted a topic, I turn off the valve and give my brain and my husband a rest.
The exercises in The Write-Brain Workbook didn’t come to me like that, however. They are actually culled from exercises I presented over many, many years at drop-in writing workshops for adults at chain bookstores in the greater Philadelphia area. On second thought, each workshop really only required a maximum of 6 exercises, but when I sat down to prepare I would always have at least a dozen ready to go. Like I said, it just happens.
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment was the restraint I exhibited the day I knew Write-Brain Workbook was in the first local bookstore. I had been calling all the stores on a daily basis for two weeks to the point where I had to start disguising my voice. And on the day I finally got a yes, I could have called in sick to my day job or I could have gone in late. Instead, I acted contrary to my need-for-immediate-gratification personality, and waited until the evening so I could go to the store with my husband who was to take photos. My biggest regret is that I was wearing brown pants and in all my excitement to dash out the door the moment he came home, I threw on bright red shoes. I clash horribly in the photos, but my smile is so big that most people don’t notice it. There is no question that having my first book, Write-Brain Workbook, published was a most exciting accomplishment.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The alarm goes off. I push the snooze button. A cat walks on top of me to get to the window that’s above my head. The alarm goes off again. I hit snooze a second time. Our other cat meows and claws at the box spring near my husband’s feet. This wakes my husband. He asks me what time it is. I lie and make it much later hoping he will panic and get up and take the first shower. The rest of the day isn’t much different, except I check my email as often as possible.
Seriously, now: I do my personal and creative work in the morning, go to a great day job from 10 till 5, and then either socialize or do more creative stuff in the evening. I like to read fiction with breakfast and play a board game or cards with my husband with dinner. I always set the alarm before bed, even on the weekends.
In what way (if any) has your writing life changed in the past five years?
I have realized how much I love public speaking, especially when it’s motivational. It’s very gratifying to help others. And in the process of running my workshops, I, in turn, become very energized and motivated.
Also, when Write-Brain Workbook was published, one of my life dreams came true. This has helped me realize how important goals and visions are. I always set quantifiable and trackable (is that a word?) goals so I stay on target. And I now know that my dreams and visions aren’t all daydreams. They can and do come true.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Yikes! Only one? That’s hard. I can whittle it down to 2: a black medium point pen and a yellow legal pad. Wait, I also need a dictionary. And then there’s my desk and chair. And my computer and ergonomic keyboard and mouse. And my chiropractor who helps me be able to sit and type. And then there’s Microsoft Word. I especially like the cut-and-paste function of MS Word. Yes, that’s it. If I have to choose only one, I will go with cut-and-paste!
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
This passage from W. H. Murray’s The Scottish Himalaya Expedition really resonates with me:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’“
All I have to do is hear the first four words of this, and I immediately shift into a creative place. It’s really true for me that when I am in flow all sorts of synchronicities and coincidences occur and doors seem to magically open. It’s a great feeling.
More Creative Writing Exercises
For more great creative writing exercises, check out The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer.