Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Writer's Resolution 1 - Be ready for tomorrow

Could half the battle of becoming a productive writer be being prepared? That's my conclusion, based on teaching hundreds of students. Most people who freeze up or don't get around to writing on a regular basis have not gotten ready to write ahead of time. You can find your own way to do this, but here's what I recommend for the composition phase.

To set up your writing:

Commit to writing. Give yourself the gift of 15 minutes (or 200 words) a day, five days a week. Set this time aside as appointments that trump all other activity. You deserve it don't you?

Commit to one project. You don't need to write sequentially. You can jump around to "good parts" or places that are working or even write scenes you suspect will be cut. But the words should add to the story you have chosen to write, not be part of another project. (It's okay to work on other projects, but only if you keep your promise to add to the chosen story.) And you need to finish the project you committed to.

Write down what you will work on the next time you write. If you outline, this is already done. If you write by the seat of your pants, this barely intrudes on your creative process (and you are welcome to write something else in addition to what you stated). These words written ahead of time will set a specific goal and get your mind working on the job. Make sure this note to yourself is in one sentence or a few clear words.

"I will write the scene in which..."
"I will describe the place where..."
"I will record the character's reaction to..."

That's it. Do these three things -- set aside a time to write, choose the project you'll see to completion, and give yourself the assignment beforehand -- and you'll be ready to write tomorrow (or the next time you're committed to write).  The words might not flow every day, but you'll make progress on your story and get it finished. 

You may want to use this approach as the bones for your New Year's resolution. Begin by putting a start date on your calendar. 

What should you write? Most writers I know already have a project in mind or in progress, so that may be what you use to try out this approach. If you don't have a project or can't choose between them, select the shortest viable project on your list or write a short story based on an online prompt to get yourself going.

If this is half the battle to becoming a productive writer, what's the other half? These are the questions I get from students:

How do I choose a project?
How do I know what to write?
What about research?
What if what I'm writing stinks?
What about story logic?

These point to aspects of planning, selection, exploration, and revision, and all of them are essential to creating stories that are publishable. I'll discuss these in the coming weeks (and I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics). But, with what is above, I think I've provided enough for you to build good habits of productive writing and to develop a process that fits your time, personality, and style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Joy to the Writer - 5 Ways to have fun

When you're grinding through a rewrite or stuck in the middle of a manuscript, it can be hard to remember (or even imagine) what a delight putting together stories can be. Yes. Sometimes you just have to trudge on through to "the end." But you might try a few exercises that can help you get the spark back.
  • Write a pastiche. Go reread a few pages of a favorite writer. Choose one with a strong, identifiable voice. Then write a page that sounds like it came from that author. If a scene comes to mind, jump in and get it down on paper. If not, write a scene that comes immediately after the conclusion of the story you sampled. For extra fun, insert a character from your work in progress (WIP). Don't fret over decisions here, just be playful.
  • Write from a prompt. There are a lot of these online. Writers Digest posts one each week. Grab a prompt that appeals to you and take it on a test drive.
  • Write a gift. This past summer, in celebration of my father's 100th birthday, I started up what I called The Missives Project - one hundred illustrated, one-page notes mailed to him, counting up to his party. Other family members contributed, but I wrote dozens of these, remembering events or recounting thematic experiences (like Christmases). Each one energized my writing and made me feel good about the process. So choose someone to send a note to and get to work.
  • Write for luck. Choose a happy moment in your life when things turned out better than you expected them to, by chance. Tell that story in a page.
  • Write on a dare. That scene that rattles around in your head and can't find a home? Or that you feel you're not ready to write? Get it out. Put it onto a page. Make it a dance like nobody's watching moment. 
The point here is to get your juices flowing and to recapture the good feelings writing can provide to you. This is not about creating distractions, so don't abandon your WIP to turn a fun exercise into another unfinished novel. Don't sacrifice too much writing time to this. Make it an appetizer, not a meal. (I set a timer for no more than 45 minutes, and I don't do one of these more than one hour per week.) Don't take it too seriously. Don't think about monetizing this work. Don't stress. Have fun. Find the joy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Brag and Boast Your Way to Better Fiction

Every time my wife and I picked up my son from summer Boy Scout camp, we were treated to a ceremony that included wonderful, outrageous boasts. Each troop tried to outdo the others with ridiculous bragging. The object seemed to be both a manly exercise and a test of language skills. For me it was simply fun.

I've always been attracted to tall tales, out-sized insults, and boasts. They show up a lot in Shakespeare. I watched Henry V this weekend, and they inspired this blog's subject. This from the feckless Dauphin:

“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.”

From someone else, it might come off as dignified, but he is revealed to be delusional. His soldiers don't believe a word of what he says, and the audience is encouraged to be as skeptical. So boasts, and how they are set in a story, can both reveal character and can foreshadow later action (the Dauphin's defeat at Agincourt).

A well-crafted boast can be a memorable part of a story, but I've found boasts useful in developing characters before I write scenes. By its nature, a boast is exaggerated. It captures the public voice of the character in a way that is intended to draw attention. And it often reveals weaknesses between the lines. 

Of course, you can take a boast in the opposite direction. In the New Testament, there's a nice turn by St. Paul:

"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."

A reverse boast goes in the opposite direction, often revealing fears and insecurities, but it also can reveal hidden strengths. I usually try both kinds of boasts as I explore a character.

Boasts often include powerful comparisons and metaphors: Eyes of an eagle, a mountain of a man, lion-hearted. "I am a hawk." But the best, most useful boasts are about doing things, often tangible, even visceral things like eating, spitting, having sex, and fighting. Powerful verbs combined with elemental forces -- stamping mountains into gravel -- make great boasts.

Again, it's likely most boasts you develop won't make it into your stories, but they can provide fresh perspectives on characters and help you to explore their limits. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Putting Stories in Motion - Activating your imagination

If you want to remember the face of a friend, think of a time when he or she was doing something. Often, memories are not snapshots, they're movies.

I was given this advice at a time of distress, when I was having difficulty coming up with any memories, and it proved to be invaluable. I found the features of friends and loved ones came more easily to mind. I also found I could hear their voices, and it became easier to relive the most emotionally evocative events we'd shared.

From a personal standpoint, this was a real boon. From the perspective of writing, it was invaluable. Whenever a scene needs to be deeply felt or requires a texture that eludes me, I can immerse myself in memories that otherwise feel rehearsed and stale.

The same thing is true for places. While I get a thrill out of looking at pictures from a visit to India, it can't compare to envisioning a turbaned man on a white stallion riding up to my taxi in New Delhi, leaning down to get a better look at me. A photo of my grandfather's farmhouse can't match the detail and sense of being there I have when I recall climbing onto the antique tractor, starting it up, and mowing the long field where we played baseball and golf.

I am not limited to memories. Once I am into a story, I make a point of imagining characters doing mundane things like buttoning a shirt or eating an ice cream cone. This almost always segues into something more dramatic, revealing who they are and, sometimes, adding scenes I hadn't planned. When I am working on scenes, I don't just take a picture or even stroll through them. I give myself an active job, like repairing an engine on a rocket ship or digging a grave on a moonless night.

Of course, research, especially when it is hands-on and active, feeds imagination, but don't stop there. Remember the adage,"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand"? Focusing "I do" or "he/she does" when delving for memories and exploring scenes and characters can  make your story more vivid and compelling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Controlled Flow - Your story in motion/moments

In athletics, form -- the shape and fluidity of motion -- can make the difference between success and failure. This is obviously true in kinetic arts, like dance, as well. Is it true for writing? Is this an element that can make the difference in your writing?

I believe it is, and I think it would be better recognized if form didn't already have a different meaning (article, short story, novel, poem, etc.) in writing. Some of the controlled flow of words, sounds, story, and content is assumed within discussions of style and voice, but looking at it in isolation might be useful. Let's look at each of the elements of controlled flow.

Goal and design - A mason wants to build a wall that serves a purpose (supporting a roof), has aesthetic value, and satisfies the client. From many choices, he chooses a design that will satisfy these needs. My goal for a scene of a commercial novel could be a number of things -- to reveal a clue, to create an obstacle for the protagonist, to reveal character. Scenes fit in to a larger story, usually with logic, and bring the story forward in ways that keep the reader engaged. The overall goal of most scenes is to create emotion within the reader.

Content - The bricks of a scene are the events, discussions, narrations, viewpoint character's thoughts, and facts that are used to build it.

Order - Taking those scene elements and sequencing them may be obvious, tied to cause and effect or assembled like arguments. But many of the best works put the elements together in ways that create surprises, pace reveals, and, most importantly, build toward an emotional ending. The best way to understand how order can freshen a scene and change the impact on readers is by looking at what your favorite authors do in the scenes that mean the most to you.

Transitions -These are the mortar between your bricks. How do you move effectively from dialogue to narration? From action to the thoughts of a character? From paragraph to paragraph. These shifts can be smooth and barely noticeable or harsh and abrupt. I like to think of these in terms of film, where dissolves, cuts, changes in perspective, and many other transitions help to direct attention, moderate energy, and alter the mood of the scene. Or observe how a gymnast doing floor exercise controls the story of the movement by pausing, turning her head, or cocking her hip.

Pace - Some of the above directly impacts the pace at which a scene evolves, but direct attention to how the overall pace goes is essential to controlled flow. Here, paying attention to sentence and paragraph lengths, echoes and repetition of words and images, and placement of reveals can give you the power to time the reader experience in a way that meets your goals.

Music - Read the words out loud. How to they flow? How do they meet each other and what currents do they create? Would they do the emotional job even if they were in a different language?

Structure - Much of the structure is created in the design, but, once the scene is finished, the experienced structure emerges. I find that I can't see this structure immediately after I'm finished. It shows itself to me after I have the chance to get away from the manuscript for awhile and forget my design. This is one way letting the story rest for a month or so pays off.

While I have dealt with scenes here, much of the above could be adapted to control the flow, on the one hand, of elements within a scene, and, on the other hand, larger units like sequences, chapters, and the story as a whole.

Overall, I'm talking here about your story in motion and how its moments engage the head, the heart, and the body. Go back to choreography. Dance, at its best does this, and watching a master dancer share his of her art captures your attention, stops your breathing, and makes it impossible to sit still. Do that with your story.