Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

The Relationship

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

You didn't expect it to happen, but it happened. You met. And at that moment you knew something special was about to transpire. You flirted. You spent time together. You touched. And at that point you knew. You knew you were about to embark on a life-long relationship.

This is the story of you and your story. At the moment you get serious and enter a committed relationship, the honeymoon begins. You're in that wonderful period where anything and everything goes. The world is full of unlimited possibilities. Everything is exciting. Everything clicks. There are no worries. No plot holes. No vast expanses of frustration as you plod your way from one pivotal scene to the next. In short, you are happy.

Enjoy it while you can because the honeymoon does not last. Very soon you will hit that plot hole and find yourself trying to figure out how your protagonist was in Paris at three o'clock, in Sydney at three thirty, and your story involves no science fiction elements whatsoever.

The frustration builds and builds until you find yourself in that situation you never expected to happen. You'll meet another story. And at that moment, you'll know something special is about to transpire.

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Brilliant New Technique

Monday, October 25th, 2010

A few posts ago I used the term "premature optimization" to describe the condition of making something perfect before you know if you'll actually even need it. A nice concrete example of this happened during a sixth-grade art class of mine. Yes, I'm going back that far, but I think it's worth it.

I had chosen to draw a picture of an animal. It might have been a raccoon, but I don't rightly remember. At any rate, I drew the rough outline of the head and body, then began drawing one of the eyes. This eye was highly detailed. I spent hours and hours on the exact shape, outline, light glint, and the close surrounding features, like the raccoon's fuzzy face.

When the project was complete I had a brilliantly-drawn eye set in the middle of a rough outline of a raccoon's head and body. This is what happens when you ignore (literally, in this case:) the big picture.

I do this with writing all too often: focusing and getting hung up on the most minute details without paying attention to the larger story. I've run otherwise good ideas right into the ground using this technique. This isn't how stories are written (he said, as if he were an expert on story writing). It's more like working in clay: throw a lump down, shape it, take a look, shape it some more. Gradually flesh out the details, evenly, and with the appropriate amount of focus and effort at each stage.

I had a breakthrough this week while writing. Let's say I had three story sections: A, B, and C. Section A was finished. Section C was well-thought-out, but completely unwritten. Section B was needed to bridge the two, but was giving me fits. It was one of those sections that sucks the life out of you, getting hung up in details that are vastly disproportionate to where you are in the writing process.

So I stepped back. I looked at Section B and realized it was really nothing more than: protagonist meets person X, accomplishes task Y, and comes away believing idea Z. In the final book, this may wind up being two paragraphs or six chapters. I don't know yet. And I don't have to know yet. All that matters is that X, Y, and Z happen. I can figure out the rest on the next pass. And, if it does turn out to be two paragraphs, I shant have wasted the time writing six throwaway chapters on it.

As soon as I did that ("insert X, Y, and Z here") everything started flowing quickly again, as it should, and I'm only sorry I didn't do it sooner. In fact, little parts of Section C are also utilizing this technique and I love it. The story is flowing very quickly and all of these little IOUs can be easily paid off once I see how they fit into the bigger picture.

Give it a shot. The time you save just may be your own.

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Thursday, September 30th, 2010

I'd like to tell you the story about how and when I knew I wanted to write. I'm sure my story is very much like yours. I mean, there can't be that many different ways a person is drawn to this endeavor, n'est-ce pas?

Didn't the writing bug also bite you that one day you left middle school right after lunch due to the flu and on the way home you were abducted by aliens? Then, after being gone several years, they returned you back to the exact time and place they took you? And you were pretty much none the worse for the experience except for the curse they laid upon you: the ever-present desire to write novels but without the ability to construct a plot that would hold a reader's attention for more than half a latte? Didn't that happen to you too?

Here I am, more than seventeen years after my abduction, and I'm still living with this issue. I may someday fill you in on what happened during those intervening years, but not right now. Suffice it to say I spent a good chunk of it writing non-fiction. I certainly figured out how to write words good . . . but then I made a naive mental leap. I assumed this meant I could write a novel. "You're a great writer!" my imaginary friends would tell me. "You should be able to write a book without any problem at all."

If by "without any problem" my invisible pals meant "with lots and lots of problems," then they were spot on. Simply being able to write good is not the same thing as telling a good story. For a number of years I had an uneasy feeling this was the case. Fortunately, two very non-imaginary people, Jack and Jill, took a look at my work and pointed this out to me. They each employed a constructive manner using plenty of terms that couldn't possibly terminate a friendship.

As I prepare to give this another go tomorrow, the second month of PBWQ, I'm hoping the story structure I've worked and reworked over the last four to six weeks or so pays off. Otherwise I'm calling those aliens and demanding my money back.

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The Succinct Synopsis

Monday, September 27th, 2010

If you're one of the two-to-four people playing along in the First Annual PBWQ, then you should be painfully aware that the end of the first month is upon us. Have you spent it planning? Plotting? Writing? Sleeping? Or did you do what I did and wasted too much time making a synopsis that looked a wee bit too much like the final product?

Productivity-wise, I had a pretty good week. In spite of the fact that I had several nothing-at-all days, the (essentially) two days I was on were good ones. As I mentioned in my PBWQ update yesterday, I decided this week to visualize the entire storyline as a series of bullet points. So instead of writing a long and winding synopsis like so:

At this point the protagonist decided to fix a bowl of cereal. He had been up all night trying to figure out how he was going to get out of his current predicament. He decided to talk things over with his buddy right after breakfast. His buddy always knew what to do.

I ended up with something quite a bit more succinct:

  • o Bob eats breakfast.
  • o Buddy helps out Bob.

It's easier to read, understand, edit, manipulate and discourages the fluff that tends to creep into my synopsizing. Which is another way to say: it's virtually darling-proof. If you're taking the whole just-the-facts-ma'am approach, you're not creating little literary gems all over the place. If a bullet point doesn't fit, out it goes and no one cares. It's refreshingly clinical. I wish I'd thought of it fifteen years ago.

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Twenty Minutes

Monday, September 6th, 2010

post image: Twenty MinutesI find it ironic that I frequently find myself lacking any sort of ambition when it comes to doing the thing I want to do most: namely, drink beer. Er . . . wait. No, I mean write. I mostly want to write.

Most of the time it's because I'm too dejected to write anything. Storylines hit brick walls. The brain goes numb. Everything I've done for the past six weeks is crap. I know I need to keep at it if I'm going to knock down those walls, reignite the brain, or turn the crap around. But it can be really difficult to harden myself to the task at hand. I think Gimli summed it up best during his orc-chase with:

"Well, let us go on," said Gimli. "My legs must forget the miles. They would be more willing, if my heart were less heavy."


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Always Darkest When?

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

post image: dawnStill, if anything’s going to "happen" it's going to be a long journey. And, as we all know, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Unfortunately, at this point, I can’t even find my shoes.

That was from last week, when things were looking pretty bleak for me, creativity-wise. This two year book project kept running into nothing but dead ends, no matter which way I came at it. And it was a shame too, since I had so many good scenes (and even a good ending) planned. But all the good scenes and good endings in the world are for naught if readers put your book down after the first fifty pages. If you can't get that heart-pounding action going right away, readers nowadays---with so many millions of other creations vying for their attention---will walk. I don't blame them.


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The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

post image: feetI spent several hours Sunday night trying to kick-start some creativity. I needed more than just Mr. Sanders to get me moving this time. As I said before, in theory creativity shouldn't be any problem at all. We are by nature creative. Every day every single one of us creates. We aren't handed a script as soon as we crawl out of bed. We create, we improvise, we play off each other. All day. Every day. So what makes the creative arts so difficult sometimes?

Well, for one, a good story is hopefully a wee bit more interesting than our unscripted lives. Sure, we may create fresh, new dialog during the natural course of our normal day. But it's doubtful we're coming up with anything Shakespearean either. No, to make a good story takes something extra.

A few writers get lucky. Every so often a writer might be sitting on a train and suddenly think, "What about a boy who's a wizard who doesn't know he's a wizard?" I'm not that kind of writer. I struggle; and Sunday evening was no exception. I tried one of my usual tricks (don't ask me why it's "usual" since it hasn't worked yet). I tried to "open my brain" so to speak. I looked at art, listened to music, and did what I could to rise above the reek of the earth into that plane of creative bliss.


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The Creative Process

Friday, August 6th, 2010

post image: lightbulbCars are obvious. Humans like to move around a lot and, as a species, we're predisposed to solving problems as quickly and efficiently as possible. So what could be more obvious than inventing an object that moves around under its own power, carries people and cargo, and only costs between ten and ninety percent of each paycheck? If cars had never been invented, it's likely you would have come up with the idea just this morning.

Unfortunately, most creative ideas appear brain-dead obvious in hindsight. Why of course we came up with refrigerators, tube socks, and the printing press! We can't imagine our lives without them. But when it comes to looking forward, things get a bit more difficult. Sure, anyone can read a Harry Potter book and think, "Heck, I could've come up with that!" But the odds are: no, you probably couldn't. And neither could I.


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The Greatest of These…

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

If I write a story to rival Hemmingway or Steinbeck, but have not an ending, I am only a whining blogger or a pathetic author wannabe. If I have the gift of prose and can understand the difference between "lie" and "lay", and if I can write for thirty days straight, but have not an ending, I am nothing. If I pour everything I have into every page, but have not an ending, I gain nothing.

The ending is important, the ending is paramount. It does not leave you hanging, it does not leave you disappointed, it does not peter out into nothing. It does not annoy, it does not anger, it does not cause readers to petition for a "zero star" rating. It always satisfies, always suits, always gratifies.

The ending should never fail. When I was a child. I wrote like a child, I plotted like a child, I mixed up verb tenses like a child. When I became a writer, I tried to put childish ways behind me. When perfection comes, the pesky imperfect middle chapters are forgiven. This I finally realize, though I knew it all along.

So remember! Every story has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. But the greatest of these is the end.

(I'm screwed...)

Posted in On Writing |

Plot? What Plot?

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Post ImageTwo things amazed me about my writing progress last year: 1) that I was actually doing it; and 2) that I managed to write over four hundred pages without even the slightest hint of a plot. This is okay for forty pages or so, you know, just introducing the characters, setting, and what not. Maybe eighty if you're particularly gifted with adjectives. Maybe even two hundred pages, if you have the luxury of forcing all your readers to enjoy your work at gunpoint. But never, ever four hundred pages.

Yes, yes, I realized I touched on all this in the last book update. Today I just want to dig into the whole concept a bit more.

Not every book actually needs a plot. Travel books, memoirs, dictionaries, — all of these have the ability to fill hundreds of pages without even the merest threat of a twist ending. However, unlike the other books I've written, this one is fiction. As I got to the point where I realized the book might never end, it dawned on me that I might not be the only one to notice the problem.


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