Tag Archives: writing tips

Writing Need Not Be a Lonely Business

Good fellowshipOne of the sweet deals I have noticed in working collaboratively with another writer (or even two or three in the case of Pan Historia, my writing and role play community where I have honed my skills over the years) is that I need never really suffer from writer’s block.  If you’re stuck you can get together with your fellow writer and start serving a few idea balls back and forth until you get a good volley going.  Some ideas won’t work, but usually, and pretty quickly when you have two creative minds at work, you’re going to get something good going.

Even if you’re not planning on writing a collaborative novel talking to a trusted friend could still help you.  Present them with the situation, ask them what they might do under those circumstances.  Perhaps something they suggest will surprise you.  Chances are coming at something from an entirely different point of view might spark off something in your brain.  Interestingly I have played this game with author friends of mine, people who write brilliant stories, and while I seldom end up using their ideas, just the fact that we batted it around gives me inspiration for something uniquely me, and that works with my characters, my plot.

In other words even disagreeing with suggestions can be fertile ground to break through a virtual barrier that is hold you back from writing.  I don’t belong to any writing groups but I imagine this is why many writers join them: to get ideas going, and to have trusted sounding boards.  Ultimately you make the final decisions, or if it is collaborative, the two of you will have to agree, but the process can be full of help and support, much like the Hero’s Journey.  Writing need not be a lonely business.


Discerning Between Your Inner Critic and Your Inner Low Self-Esteem

From Wikipedia:

The critic is considered to be the dialectic of genius. This insight was formulated early by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as “not every critic is a genius, but every genius is born a critic…genius has the proof of all rules within itself.” Kant scholar Jane Kneller has read this to indicate that, as opposed to the externally oriented and culturally dependent critic, “genius demonstrates its autonomy not by ignoring all rules, but by deriving the rules from itself”.

Derivation:

The word critic comes from Greek κριτικός (kritikós), “able to discern”, which is a Greek derivation from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation.

Every November I get a little queasy and uncomfortable.  That’s because it’s National Novel Writing Month.  It’s not that I’m directly opposed to the concept of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month – after all it can pull you out of writer’s block, or any other self-imposed hurdles that keep you from actually producing a body of work, instead of just talking about it, and it could turn writers into authors.  It’s the emphasis that it puts on just throwing words at the page, seemingly without discrimination or concern for the finished body of work.

I put out a tweet a few days ago stating my concern:

I think one of my main objections to nanowrimo is that writing a novel isn’t just about throwing words at the page. Sometimes you need to take scissors to it.

I got some flack there.  Apparently there is plenty on the nanowrimo forums about it being a draft, etc., but that’s not my point.  My point isn’t that you produce a finished polished work in a month at lightening speed, because that’s rarely possible, unless maybe you’re someone prolific like Stephen King.  My point is that the whole flurry of tweets, posts, blogs, and so forth creates an atmosphere that seems to negate the self-critic.  It doesn’t focus attention on the hard work that needs to be done to create a book, ready for public consumption.  It’s part of the whole, to me disturbing, lack of discrimination that I see, as if producing art was easy, something anyone can do anytime, and that it doesn’t take dedication, commitment, and a hard long apprenticeship.

I remember I was teaching drawing some years back at a college, and I had a difficult student.  She was sullen, reluctant, and didn’t want to do the work.  The quality was poor, even though she was coming to class and doing the homework.  I asked her what the problem was, and she replied that she was a painter, and she was forced to take drawing, but there was simply no point to it!  I feel the same about the writer that only emphasizes self-experience and getting the words out at the cost of actually honing the craft, learning what works and what doesn’t.

That is where I listen to my lovely self-critic.  The muse may inspire, but the critic gets out the scissors.  I love my critic.  He walks with me every step of the way.  Sometimes I override him, but we have a good collaborative relationship, so he doesn’t take it hard, or say “told you so” when it all goes wrong.  Sadly, all too often, the critic gets the boot from people’s writing practice because he gets blamed for that which he is not responsible for: the nagging negative voice of low self-esteem.  The critic believes you can do it, but just wants to help you do it better.  Low self-esteem doesn’t even want you to try.  Critic will tell you off for wasting time playing mindless games, always pushing you to achieve your goals, reminding you that time is finite (don’t kid yourself it’s not), and that the best time to get your dreams accomplished is now.  Low self-esteem is always telling you that a game is better, or cleaning, or laundry, or you can do it tomorrow.

Critic is willing to tell you the hard truths: that page is crap – do it again.  Low self-esteem will say: that page is crap – just toss it out and go back to bed.  If you are truly listening to your inner critic, and now your low self-esteem, a lot of time the news is good: this idea rocks; you are doing great; don’t listen to that agent that doesn’t think your work will sell; wow, didn’t you write a lot today.  Critic misses you when you’re not writing, and tries to remind you to do it.  Low self-esteem just tells you you’re a loser for not writing.

Discerning the difference can be tough, but it’s worth the challenge.  One needs to be ignored, overridden, and combated.  The other needs to be taken on as a partner in the endeavor, for he has many words of wisdom to impart.

Back to nanowrimo – it’s fine idea, as long as you take your critic along for the ride.


I Have Never Shot a Gun…

“Write what you know.”

Boy, that’s getting to be the old chestnut of writing advice.  It’s also hugely misleading.  The kernel of truth in it is that whatever you writing should have authenticity.  Don’t let people catch you out in ignorance.  It trips up the reader when they totally figure out that the author has no idea what they are talking about.

This advice is not about, however, only writing from personal experience.  If we all did that the fictional landscape would be one helluva a boring place.  The whole point of fiction is to take you someplace you <b>don’t</b> know.  At least it is for me and probably the majority of readers.  Very few people pick up a book to escape into a reality so like theirs it is indistinguishable.  What they want to do is be able to relate to the characters in the book, but not meet any old regular joe.  They want to go to the far reaches of the galaxy, or to ride the Pacific Union Railroad with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid waiting for them around the bend to blow up the safe.

Even if you’re reading something that is contemporary you want to peek into the mind and heart, or maybe the madness, of someone you don’t know.  You might be able to relate, but you aren’t them, and they aren’t exactly anyone you know either.

The real key to writing what you know is to research and make sure you get the details right, even if it is pure and utter fantasy, and then inject your personal experience into the story to render it authentic.  You might not have been born in the 1900s but you can relate to something so tight fitting it makes it hard to breathe, you understand what riding a train is like, and you know the fear that the threat of violence brings.

Every character should be a little bit of an autobiography because you’re reaching inside yourself to imagine something completely, but that doesn’t mean you know what’s like to be a serial killer, or vampire, or a space cowboy 400 light years from home.  Every character is also a little bit of biography because you’re grabbing stuff from people you know.  Even the most ordinary friend has a bit of the extraordinary you can pilfer to bring your characters to life.

Always authenticity is key, so really the old chestnut should read: “write from the heart, and then even what you don’t know will come to life for your readers”.


Procrastination Bites!

You know the score. You’re supposed to be writing. Instead you find your eyelids drooping and a powerful urge to sleep coming on. Or you start clicking those stupid little games in FaceBook or you open your version of Spider Solitaire. Just a few games… honest. Then you’ll get back to writing. Or maybe you’re the type that will start cleaning the house or doing the laundry… oh shit, hold on, I just have to put the wash in the dryer now, be right back…

Ok, now where was I? Oh yes, procrastination – the bugbear of the would-be writer. Or maybe even the nemesis of all writers? Possibly so. Wait? Do I hear the siren call of a completely different writing project all my name? You know, something like a blog, or maybe even a new collaborative writing project at your favorite online writing community? Whatever it is – something is always keeping you from finishing your novel, that is, if you are at all like me.

So what are your favorite distractions? What’s your laundry list of things that suddenly need doing urgently every time you sit down to write and how the heck do you conquer those distractions and interruptions?

Games? Close the program. Delete the software. Social networking? Turn off the Twitter. Other writing projects? Perhaps time management is required. Too tired? What do you need to eliminate from your day that is a waste of your time so you’ll be able to find the time, space, and energy to write?

I want to hear from YOU.


Who Cares What Color Their Eyes Are?

Really – who the hell cares what color their eyes are? Heck, most of us don’t even remember the color of our own spouse’s eyes. I think they are sort of a grey green and mostly I remember that because she told me and it’s important when picking out colors for her to wear. When I meet a person I don’t say “gee, it was nice to meet Bob, he had brown eyes.” I don’t remember people by their eye color or their hair color or their height; unless it’s unusual for some reason. So why is it so many writers write lines like this:

Darkly handsome Antonio, with bronzed biceps and chiseled jaw, gazed deeply into Allura’s violet eyes, so big and moist, fringed with thick luxuriant black lashes.

Yawn.

I’m pretty much done with a book right there, aren’t you? This kind of description tells us nothing except that the characters are artificially good-looking and probably going to be one dimensional. I bet he’s sardonic and prone to misunderstanding the heroine until he takes her roughly, and she’s rebellious and spunky, but she’ll yield in the end.

Writing the introduction for a character that starts with a physical description is, generally, a pretty good signal that whatever follows will be clichéd and hackneyed. Yet I have seen decent young writers make this mistake and follow it with a ripping yarn. They’re going to be fortunate indeed if they can get away with this and expect someone to keep reading. I don’t know about you but nothing about the color of the heroines eyes tell me much about her personality, and eyes simply are not windows on the soul. You can’t see anything in their depths. All the nuances of expression we human beings observe in each other is caused by hundreds of muscles in the face causing the skin around eyes and brows to crinkle and furrow, the turn of a mouth. Body language is a whole body affair and so the tilt of a shoulder, the jut of a hip, or a slouched back is telling us more than a study of an iris.

Here is a great quick sketch of a person:

He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows, and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly with a gentle Texas twang.

No hair color there, no eye color either, but you get a real sense of a living breathing person with personality. I took this quote from a description of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. The writer has picked out some salient features because they stand out and they tell us more about John Mackey than a mere physical description. After reading the article I know a lot about Mackey but not a thing about the color of his eyes. Tousled hair: he’s not fastidious about his appearance. Angular eyebrows: gives him an intense look that accents what the author said about the prickly undercurrent underneath the serene casual appearance. Speaks softly? As Whole Foods CEO he’s knows people are listening. He doesn’t have to shout.

Here is how F. Scott FitzGerald describes his tragic hero Jay Gatsby for the first time:

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression he that he was picking his words with care.

No idea what color his eyes are – well probably he’s blond and blue-eyed and that’s because he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, old sport. This description, that concentrates so much on the smile and how it affected our narrator, while seeming spare in physical details actually tells us a great deal about Gatsby. He’s self-made, very self-conscious, and yet he has a gift of making someone feel very special. Gatsby himself is very concerned with the external: his appearance, his speech, his house, but at the core there seems to be something empty. This image of Gatsby is then amplified and then drawn to its tragic ending throughout the rest of the book. Even more cunningly FitzGerald doesn’t even introduce Gatsby until he’s fueled our interest in through several chapters of mystery and gossip about the elusive Gatsby.

The fact that the movie version tends to stick in the mind of anyone that has seen and read the book is another good example of what it really shouldn’t matter what color your heroine’s eyes are. Casting Robert Redford as Gatsby was an admirable choice because his boyish good looks, so blond, really mirror FitzGerald’s characterization of his protagonist. Movies are a visual medium that need to make the choice about exactly what a person looks like whereas books do not. But once that choice has been made it becomes fixed in the mind. I cannot read The Great Gatsby without seeing Robert Redford but if I had read the book prior to the movie I might see a dark Gatsby, a small Gatsby, a burly Gatsby. My own mind would add details to the important clues that FitzGerald has drawn me and this internalized version of Gatsby would hold far more meaning to me than one created for me of whole cloth.

If you do end up picking an eye color or hair color for your heroine or hero it should mainly be a detail for your own imagination, and unless there is a pressing reason otherwise, probably isn’t important for your reader. How many times have you heard a person exclaim over the movie version of one of their favorite reads that the director got it all wrong? It clashes with their own internalized version of the story. What the author does is paint enough of a picture to grab their reader’s imagination and desire to know about the character, and then the reader fills in the rest, creating a truly original symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. You need to know more about your characters than you write down, and what you end up giving the reader should be revealing of their inner nature, what makes them unique, not what color their eyes are. Better you should tell us just how they organize their sock drawer.


Counting Towards Completion

Old Pan Historia logoAs of this morning I’m 14,460 words, 28 pages, and 6 chapters into writing my first novel. I also have 1,667 words of saved cuts.

What’s with the numbers I hear you ask? It’s not about cranking it out there, but about the writing, man. Alright, that’s not what you’re asking – that’s what I’m asking myself. I have often criticized the whole NaNoWriMo phenomena as a way of pushing output over quality. I think I understand better, now, why it’s a good idea to overcome writer’s block by short circuiting the whole anal retentive “it must be perfect” self-editorializing funk. Still my new obsession with numbers is not about writing 50,000 words in a single month. I am editing as I go along, and I started this particular resolution back on November 8, 2009.

I have long known that I needed something to push myself out of my own personal procrastination cycle when it came to writing my novel. I have written of my process here a couple of times in past blogs. Then in November I had the idea to start a writing group at my community web site, Pan Historia, which I dubbed Write Together. The purpose of the group, in all honesty, was twofold. One obvious reason was I felt that maybe a writing group of my peers where I was expected to show results would be a great way to give me a kick in the pants I needed. My other goal was to show that Pan Historia was not just a site where people fooled around and wrote purely for fun (though those are perfectly good and acceptable reasons to be there!) but also was a great hot house of creativity that could be a positive way for serious writers to have fun and improve their writing while doing it.

To prove that I needed to make myself a good example of it. It wasn’t enough for me to know that there were a few published writers on the site, and a few people that had taken their writing to the next level after sharpening their tools at Pan. I needed to be one of those people I talk about. So here I am to tell you that I am 14,460 words farther along on my goal than I was on November 8, 2009, and that feels damn good. The counting is a game that helps me to keep my eye on the ball, and my feet on the trail. It’s not about quantity, but the act of moving forward and having something I can measure to let me know I’m getting somewhere.

What game do you play to keep yourself on track with your writing goals?


The Bones of a Leaf

The human mind is an amazing instrument capable of processing data from multiple inputs at speeds that make the fastest microprocessor look like a slow moving cement mixer. Not only that but many of the functions it performs are sorted and prioritized without the owner even seeing or sensing the processes involved. One of the astonishing abilities of the mind is the interpretation and creation of symbols: one thing standing for another thing. Letters form words that the brain then interprets. A picture of shape that is roundish, red, and has a sticklike appendage near the top becomes an apple. I catch sight of a piece of leaf with just the stem and a small part of the base and I see a tadpole swimming on my carpet.

Art, whether written, pictorial, or musical, is the mind’s conscious manipulation of symbols to create images, emotion, and meaning in the mind of the observer/listener. I take something that is not there, create symbols (words or images), and deliver it to you so that you have an experience. Creating words from letters, then forming sentences, all of which describe the world, exterior and interior, is really an astounding activity and yet so many of us, from children to the most humble, can do it. Of course a lot of people tend to stick to the literal, the true, the tangible. It takes another flight of fancy to make stuff up – to make beautiful meaningful lies.

But even the entirely made up should be full of truths eternal. They may be very small, but I believe that even in the most lighthearted or humorous or fanciful piece of fiction writing there should be yet another layer of meaning underneath the obvious. I should be able to paint a picture for you of another reality and underlying my fictional reality is yet another substrate of meaning, of symbol. A really satisfying work of art lingers with you a long time after experiencing it. It’s the movie that makes you keep thinking days later, or the novel that resonates years in the future so that you have to pick it up again, and lo and behold there is even more there than the first time around. It’s the painting that haunts, or the musical refrain that moves you to tears and you don’t know exactly why.

If I can ever write just one novel that has the ability to resonant in the reader’s mind long after they put it down I’ll have succeeded as an artist. If someone reads my words like I can read the remains of a leaf as a tadpole on my carpet then I have done my job.