Category Archives: Craft

In sickness and in (kind of) health

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I had decided to do NaNoWriMo this year on a lark, with an idea for which I’d only had the opening at first, but which then turned around and came back to me almost fully formed: the beginning and ending I had, and major scenes were in my head. Terrific! I’ll do NaNo, something I’ve never really participated in, with this idea.

And then I promptly got pneumonia. Again. For the sixth time this year.

It has lingered on, thanks to all the circumstances that go with post-cancer treatments, but luckily it is on the fade. Now that I can really focus on a screen and words, I thought I’d talk about ideas.

From time to time, I’ll run across people who say they don’t have any new ideas, or that they are sometimes wary of writing because they think at some point they will run out of ideas and not be able to come up with any more. To both, I say: relax. All that’s necessary to get ideas is to pay attention and never lose your “what if” mentality.

If you’re a crime writer, for instance, the NY Daily News is a treasure trove of kickstarts for the writerly brain. An artist consumes the world, their brains selecting a pebble from this story, a grain of sand there, a word here, stirring these things together and then incubating the result to create a story only they can tell in whatever medium they prefer. There is no particular limit on creating ideas, no statute of limitations on the stories one might tell. You should always look to refill the well of creativity that belongs solely to you. If it seems to you the well is running dry, refill it: the world around you has everything you need to create your art. You simply need to be aware of it, and more importantly, be willing to take in huge amounts of information, even if you never immediately use every scrap of that information in some manner in your art. With all this information, and your questioning, your brain will eventually find the combination of things that burble up into an idea worth pursuing.

I hope those of you doing NaNo this year make it across the finish line, and those of you who are not doing NaNo reach whatever goal you’ve selected.

Practice

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How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

This is an old saw, but still an accurate one. All writing is practice, really – whether it’s developing your own voice, or beefing up content you don’t quite feel confident in, like, say, descriptive passages so the reader can get a sense of where they (and the characters) are.

This practice comes with a caution, as most things do. Don’t fall into the trap of going overboard on descriptions, for instance. Yes, there is valuable practice in looking around you and describing the entire setting as well as you can, but remember that doing an info dump of every single thing in a room is not fun reading. Anyone who has had to read Moby Dick, for instance, may hold the same view I do, that Melville did a ton of info dumping in that book – even now, thinking about it, I can feel my eyes glazing over.

So, you ask, what should we do, and how will we know when enough is enough? It’s simple….but not easy.

The ideal kind of description gives the reader a sort of framework to build on, their imaginations fueling the scene by virtue of what you have not mentioned. For example, if you have someone pulling into the driveway of a home that belongs to a billionaire, describing every single item about the house will be tedious. Talking about the meticulously pruned trees and landscaping, the inability to see where the mansion ends when it is viewed from the side by someone driving in, the columns lining the front of it, the heavy wooden door with a quaint knocker as if any sound made by it could possibly be heard through its thickness, and the way the character feels tiny against the sheer size of the house provides enough that the reader can see in their head the mansion they have dreamed up to go on the skeleton you’ve given.

This is not to say you should always just go with a completely bare-bones type of description. “The mansion had two stories.” is not enough to allow the reader to join you in the world you’re creating. That is your goal: to have them immerse themselves in your world to the extent they do much of the heavy lifting to fill in the empty spaces while you concentrate on the heart of the story itself.

Until next time, peeps: be well. And get some writing done.

Resolution

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I’m watching the Raiders and the Dolphins duke it out, and the video resolution of the game keeps going from the usual HD, perfectly clear resolution into a very poor, over the air sort of resolution, and then back again. I know it’s the game transmission, because all of the ads come through in lovely HD, from the fine print about all the various side effects of whatever the drug du jour is to fight cholesterol or diabetes to the latest artery-clogging sandwich from any number of fast food joints for which one may very well need cholesterol or diabetes drugs.

But this sparked a thought in my head about writers (some writers) who are paralyzed while writing because they believe what they write on the page must match exactly with what is in their head, and if it doesn’t, they cannot move on until it does.

This is not a good way to write that first draft. I know this, because I’ve had the same paralyzing grip of perfectionism myself that prevented me from making any decent progress on whatever I’ve been writing. It is the type of mindset that leaves a drawer full of half-written pieces – if we’re lucky to have made it that far – and folders of uncompleted manuscripts on the computer. Most of all, it is the type of mindset that, if maintained, will ensure you will finish nothing at all, thereby avoiding even the slightest whiff of external criticism.

There is a solution to this, of course. The solution is to plow past any roadblocks that tiny voice is putting into your head about how each sentence must be perfect before moving along to the next one. It’s completely acceptable to acknowledge that things are not going to come out of your head to the page exactly the way you thought it would or how you think it should be. These are things that can be fixed later – but you might find that some of the things you thought were simply awful and that you have now contributed to the detriment of literature overall are not really that bad. This can be particularly true if (as in my case) the story has been banging around in your head for so long that the entire story is basically written, and the story has been revised multiple times as it baked in your brain already, making the first draft very much like another’s second or third draft. Even if this is so, however, it would be a good practice for some writers – me again! – to not read back over the previous day’s work. It is just too easy to get caught in the quicksand of the perfectionism mind and have all the progress and momentum you’ve built up grind to a halt.

Remind yourself of this: you can edit what you’ve written after the work itself is complete. Make yourself a deal with that little voice that tells you everything you write stinks and you’ll never get anyone to act as a beta reader and you’ll never be able to revise it to come close to the imaginary utopia in your head and you’ll never get any interest from any agents or traditional publishing houses and you’ll be lucky if anyone at all reads it is you self publish and on and on and on. You can deal with these things if they even appear. Write without looking back over your shoulder at the road you’ve laid and instead look ahead to the road less traveled, as Frost would say. That is your path, and no one else can create it but you.

Deep breath. You may pour your heart and soul into the book, but the book is not you. It’s just a small piece of yourself you’re bravely sending out into the universe. And that’s more than most people ever accomplish.

Until next time, peeps: be well.

Passing fancies

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The other night, as I was in that hazy zone between awake and asleep, an idea flitted across the front of my brain. I had a notebook within arm’s reach of where I was sleeping. I told myself to reach over and grab that notebook and write it down. Did I? Nope. I made the usual big mistake that people make and told myself I would remember it in the morning. It was, after all, a very good idea, and something I thought could be built up and turn into something rather good. Something that good, my sleepy brain reasoned, would stick around.

It didn’t.

The object lesson for today: if it occurs to you, write it down.

It doesn’t matter if you think the idea is so good that writing it down isn’t necessary, or that it is so good that it will stick to your brain until you get a chance to write it down (after waking up, perhaps): write it down as immediately as possible. There is no reason not to these days, when everyone practically carries a computer in their pockets. Almost every cell phone I’ve used has some kind of notepad application on it by default, and the new ones almost all have basic voice recorders of some sort – even without a voice recorder, they all have video recording. Even if you hate the sound of your voice or your visage captured digitally, keep in mind it’s only there until you can get it down on paper or your idea file or whatever else it is you use to keep track of what you think up here and there. It’s temporary, and no one has to listen to it or see it.

Whether the idea is one you think would be subordinate to a larger theme in a piece of work, or one you think could carry a work alone and be a bestseller. remember to write it down. It’s the best insurance for your brain you can have.

 

I remember

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Once upon a time, in AP English, our instructor (who had gone to the Christmas break single and came back married and with a new last name) had us in a poetry unit. I was a senior then, and already had been writing a ton of poetry for years. But we read Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and English classes (and literature classes in college) naturally revolve around getting to whatever “deeper meaning” is in a poem, as if every single poem in the world is written with Deep Inscrutable Meaning instead of being anything more mundane, like observations on a place or time or objects, or a description of an ordinary day, or how we value this thing over that other thing, or any of a million other possibilities.

At that time, after reading it, Mrs. Poole (that was her name after she married) asked us what the tone of the poem was. No one answered, and into the silence, I said, “Grave.”

I thought the reply quite funny, but did not laugh out loud, and no one else reacted at all to it. I don’t even believe Mrs. Poole even smiled at it.

That’s the down side of life: saying or writing things people don’t get, especially if it’s some off the cuff witticism that some (rather humorless) people don’t understand right away, or at all.

But I enjoyed that moment, even if no one appreciated it but me, because it isn’t often you have the perfect answer jump to your lips. Those memories should be savored, even if they are solitary ones.

Luck

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A lot of the “luck” you get in this life is the luck you make. If you get some megadeal for a book you wrote, that isn’t something that just happens. You have to do the writing. Win the lottery? Gotta buy a ticket. Make a spectacular catch? Gotta practice. Find a buried treasure? Gotta dig. There is very little luck in life that involves you doing absolutely nothing.

Serendipity

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The other day while in the shower, an idea bubbled to the  surface of my brain. It’s often during mundane, routine tasks that these little flashes pop up for me – showering, driving somewhere into town from the boonies, pulling weeds, checking the bees, mowing part of the property, transplanting seedlings, and so on. I’ve heard (and read) this happens to other people as well, as a byproduct of the mind being able to wander away from the task at hand and not have to focus 100% on that task, freeing up the thought processes that are (for me, anyway) constantly churning through ideas and possibilities, whether they are related to the current WIP or not. This particular idea occurred ti me, and then several days later, I saw an ad on tv in the midst of the Olympics coverage for a new series that was in the same general vein, but much more macro on the subject than the micro that occurred to me would be much more interesting. I won’t go more into the idea itself right now, as that isn’t what this is really about – it’s more about those sorts of serendipitous moments when two parts of the universe crash together.

People ask where writers get their ideas, but I think the better question is how a writer gets their ideas. Ideas? They’re everywhere. Ideas are cheap. The process of stitching together various idle-thinking things, though: that’s where the ideas really happen. Sometimes those pieces come together quickly. Sometimes they may take years, or even decades. The thoughtful artist merely needs to pay attention to the world and drop the things they see or read or hear into the mental hopper and let the brain tumble them about without interfering or actively chewing on them like a dog with its favorite toy. Relax. Let your brain sort it out. When it gets to the point where the recipe has been made and it begins to come to the forefront of your mind more and more, you’ll know it’s not just that the pieces of the recipe have come together, but that it also has staying power, the good pieces kept and the other pieces left by the side of the mental road (at least for this idea) on the journey.

Recharging

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“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Benjamin Franklin

With all due respect to old Ben, this is not entirely true at face value, if we are to face reality. Still….

We’re tooling along well in the current work in progress, although we – me and voices in my head! – were struck by some kind of bug this past week that has been a malaise more annoying than completely debilitating. The writing suffers when it’s difficult to look at words on a page or screen without queasiness setting in after a very short period. It put a damper on things, and has resulted in even less sleep than the usual little, but we’re back on track, I think.

The gardens are suffering from a severe lack of attention between the above, terribly out of sync hot and humid temperatures far above the norm, and bugs – lots and lots of bugs. I’m restarting some flats, however, as here we have the opportunity to have two seasons if we like, and I would like that. The harvest totals have been good but not great, thanks to lack of proper management and the incessant ability of weeds to thrive when nothing else wants to do so. That has a potential solution that I’ll be working on that requires a delicate balance of keeping weeds down in the frames without setting the roots of the plants on fire. That same delicate balance has to be done for life in general, too: all work and no play does in fact make Jack a dull boy, after all.

By the way, I am still off facebook except to update the requisite author page, since “all authors must have a platform!” is now the mantra and requirement. I’ve been tempted here and there to pop on after monstrous, horrific events, but it would simply suck me back down into its depths only to surface for air who knows when, with all that time wasted. It’s good to know your own weaknesses and fight them accordingly.

 

Retaking the pen, day one

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I had previously (months ago, back in March, just after my birthday) created a goal of finishing a first draft of the current work in progress by the end of June. Three months, from April to the end of June, would be, I thought, plenty of time to complete it, as when I do write, I write very quickly, since the scenes have been bouncing around in my head for awhile – in a few cases, over twenty years.

If you have read a couple of the older entries here, you’ll know this did not happen. However, you’ll also know that there is a reason behind it. I had to switch from doing the actual writing to wrestling with that rather annoying (and, I had thought, forgotten) issue. I believe I’ve kicked it down enough at this point to not be as huge an impediment to getting some serious work done and get the novel (first novel!) rolled out.

Toward the end of June, I decided to also simply push aside social media. I had done this before, with some good success, but some events in June pulled me back to facebook. Today, though, is the end of the first full day with zero visits to the three social media platforms I more or less surf around: twitter (where I do more scrolling past people hawking their books nonstop and the people retweeting them than finding actual news or interesting tidbits), instagram (dogs!), and facebook (the Mothership of the Time Sink Armada).  I used the time to address a few things that had to be done, and today – day two, since the clocked tolled past midnight almost an hour ago at this point – I will begin working my way back into the writing pool, with a low hanging target of 250 words. That’s right: about one typeset page. This post is longer than that, but I’d rather work the novel writing  upward in a gentle manner, instead of trying to be like the gym cowboys who show up after New Year’s, work out for six hours, then cannot move the next day and eventually let it slide.

Almost every writer on the planet says “write every day”. I’m a believer of that myself. It is not, however, because I think that such writing has to be done because the train has to keep moving forward nonstop – after all, it’s possible whatever was written on day x may not make it into the final draft, or may be cut down significantly, or rearranged, or whatever else could be done to it. I think, at least in my case, it is because when it becomes a habit to write every day, it is like any other routine that becomes ingrained in our lives, done automatically, without a lot of thought that it could be terrible, that everyone will hate it, that a meteor will fall from the sky and crush you at your desk for daring to write. Instead, it will be just another part of the rhythm of the day, and will be eventually be noticeable by its absence rather than its presence.

So, here we begin. The map is laid out, and the path is faintly scratched over it to the destination to which we strive, but those lines await a heavier hand with the pen, to clearly define the journey’s progress. I have the greatest expectation that this time things will be different, because sometimes digging at the scars of your psyche is the only way to get to the truth, and then gain the ability to move large obstacles from the very start of the trail to discovery.