Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks

Some people feel they can only write when they have large, dedicated blocks of time. There are occasions when I need that, too. When I go into the deep analysis of the plot, for instance, I often need to work intensely and any interruptions can force me to do a lot of rework. I can usually anticipate these ahead of time and get them onto the calendar.

But there are lots of writing jobs that can be done without much dedicated time. I found this when I did what most productivity experts advocate -- I kept track of how I used the hours I have.

I formed my baseline by tracking my activities over one week. Ultimately, this reached beyond the typical productivity view of finding free hours and wasted hours because I noted my energy levels. I identified which tasks seemed to best match my rhythms.

I'm a morning person, and virtually all my hardest work, including work that requires the most imagination, needs to get done before 1 PM. I also noted that my energy is better if I enforce a "walk around" break every 40 to 50 minutes. I need to get the blood moving and to loosen my muscles.

In the afternoon, I tend to do more rewriting and work that involves logic or directed work (such as filling out forms for story planning and character development). This is also a good time to do business activities for me -- although I do tend to check anything involving money at a time when my brain is fresher.

The biggest bonus I got from paying attention to how I work came with my discovery of interstitial work. Back when my calendar would fill up with meetings, I began to keep a list of essential activities I could break away from easily or even complete in five or 10 minutes. Since then, whenever I'm kept waiting or an activity ends early, I go to my list, grab the next thing, and get to work on it.

I have also made good use of activities that allow split attention. I almost always listen to a book that's relevant to my work as I walk the treadmill or make dinner.

Similarly, I've come to respect what I call my "Zen" times. When I am doing physical activities like raking leaves or I'm in the shower, ideas will pop into my head or characters will begin talking to me. One best-selling author told me she always kept a wax pen in her shower stall for exactly this reason.

Finally, there's what I call commercial breaks. When I'm watching a ball game on TV, I keep a list of simple questions nearby or index cards of scenes. I grab these and scribble out answers or experiment with new orders whenever commercials come on.

So, here's my "how to":
  • Track and analyze how you spend your time in terms of the intensity of activities, the opportunities for specific levels of work, and your own cycles of energy.
  • Classify your writing activities in ways that will encourage you to make the most of the opportunities you've identified.
  • Be prepared. Have the materials to do your work at hand when opportunities present themselves.
Next time, I'll list some specific writing tasks and when, from my experience, they make the most sense.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 7 - High contrast

I try to let my stories off the leash in the drafting stage. It's one of the reasons why I work hard to banish my internal editor and get the words down quickly. But my natural tendencies do not go toward exploring extreme differences. Luckily, I have found that it's relatively easy to deliberately explore contrasts when I do my revisions. Why does this make a difference?

Think of a target. You'll imagine concentric circles of white and black (or possibly the color red). If you make the circles white and pale yellow or green and blue, the image is less riveting and finding the bull's-eye becomes more of a problem.

All other things being equal, a duet between a man and a woman is more compelling than between two men or two women. A friendship between a tall person and a short person (Mutt and Jeff) attracts more attention than a pair with comparable heights. Part of the art of cooking is combining distinctly different flavors. Each of these is compelling because we're built to notice and engage with contrasts.

So one way to add interest to your story is to emphasize differences. Let's explore five ways that you can enhance contrast and draw your readers and audiences in.

Physical diversity – Gender, size, ethnicity, dress, grooming, deformity, and beauty are just some of the immediate and accessible aspects of characters that can be presented to readers and audiences. The diversity of the crew on the Starship Enterprise was immediately apparent to viewers (and, to some, shocking in its day).

Defy expectations — If the appearances of characters don't line up with people's preconceived notions (the more), this creates surprises that make people want to know more. In Legally Blonde, the main character goes against the "dumb blonde" convention by being highly intelligent. In Crocodile Dundee, the outback adventurer outsmarts the city slickers.

Personalities – The classic here is the Odd Couple, which pits a slob against the neatnik when they are forced to live together. But there are plenty of other cases where people who plan are matched with those who improvise or straight arrows are matched with crooks. The variations in perspectives, values, and approaches to problem solving can be mined in ways that illuminate and amplify theme. This is especially true when the differences are pushed to the limits. One way to explore this is to create characters who are exact opposites based on personality testing, such as Myers-Briggs.

Impossible tasks – Imagine if the protagonist in Rocky had been the latest Olympic gold medal winning heavyweight boxer. Would the movie have been as interesting? Instead, he's a failed boxer who has lost his spot at the gym and makes his living as a leg breaker, someone sent to intimidate people who owe money. Luke Skywalker is not yet a Jedi. He's a farm boy. And he has to take on the Empire. While you have to stay within the bounds of believability (Apollo Creed does not take on a 12-year-old girl), giving the external goal of the story to an unlikely person creates curiosity and, because we want to root for underdogs, empathy.

Knowledge – Irony also provides an interesting contrast. It can make readers and audiences deliciously uncomfortable when they know more than the characters do. In a horror story, audiences worry when a character decides to go down the hallway or enter a room where the monster, serial killer, or demon is waiting. Hitchcock famously spoke about how excruciating a scene becomes when characters have an everyday chat in the presence of a ticking time bomb.

Usually, writers have the good sense to include conflict and tension in most scenes. They make sure dialogue is distinct enough so that a listener or reader, without cues, would know who is speaking. But, many stories squander opportunities to enhance differences. Either planning or in revision, looking closely for opportunities to increase contrast in characters, situations, objectives, settings, expectations, social norms, values, and more can raise better questions and create deeper emotional experiences.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 6 - Fear and blasphemy

My intent is not to deliver you into temptation. I am not trying to break up your marriage or scandalize your congregation or attract the attention of analysts at the Department of Homeland Security. I'm all about stories. The best stories. The stories that challenge. The stories that are memorable.

So... what are you afraid of?

I mean this literally. (What you are looking for are opportunities to take risks with your drafts, so take notes, make lists.) Let's take my favorite route to surprising answers, a climb up Maslow's pyramid (or hierarchy).
By FireflySixtySeven - Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow's paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting from the bottom, what deaths are you most afraid of? Begin with the most likely ones. Heart disease, automobile accidents, cancer, Alzheimers, etc. ? Then, are there unlikely deaths that give you nightmares? Are there causes of death or moments/places of death that would mortify you?

You might want to imagine disabilities or diseases, as well. When I was a kid, there seemed to be a television genre for this -- disease of the week. I don't think the interest has gone away. What makes you squirm will make your characters squirm and engage readers.

Constant threats to safety can raise anxiety levels. I've been mugged a couple of times, so I avoid hidden spaces and shadowy alleys. I am keenly aware when traveling in some countries of the dangers of food poisoning, even in the best hotels (eat only if sealed or sizzling). What have been the worst threats to your safety? Getting separated from your parents? Riding in a car when a drunk was behind the wheel? Where would you never go? What would you never do? If something you imagine gives you chills, add it to your list.

Start easy, remembering embarrassments. Probing your social anxieties, from public speaking to secret traumas. Then move on. What could you do that would break the bonds of love? Or what could happen that would separate you from people you care for? Think in personal terms, exploring your real relationships and push to levels beyond forgiveness. I hope none of the worst things have happened to you, but if they did, they are there to be mined. And, if they didn't, your empathy has forced you to experience the horrors others have shared. These are key to strong stories, too.

From the time of Greek drama, the idea of bringing the most honored low has made good theater. Think of what you are most esteemed for or what you most value about yourself. Now imagine losing those things completely, a fall from grace. Punishment for hubris. Try the same thing for someone who is your model, your hero, or your heroine.

Feel free to explore the loss of self-actualization, if you wish. In all probability, people whom Maslow would have considered self-actualized have suffered in this way, and it might lead to good stories. However, since Maslow believed that less than one percent of humans achieve self-actualization, you might have difficulty getting readers to identify with the consequences of such a failure.

This is your fears list. All of these fears can catch fire in a good story, and you should try submitting your characters to these tortures, especially those that disturb you the most. Don't worry. Your characters will forgive you. And you don't have to include these in any drafts that others will read.

Now climb the pyramid again. This time, think of what might appeal to you -- but not just anything. Think about what attracts you that is unacceptable to others, weird, or even taboo. If it's something you'd never dare to do, even better. Make a list of these.

This is your blasphemy list. Again, try to work these into your stories. Then, as a test, imagine your distress if your kids or your lover(s) or your boss or your spouse's friends or government agents were to read these scenes. Out loud, in front of you. Imagine reading such scenes in different cultures or different times. Would any of them lead people into temptation? Break a marriage? Lead to shunning or exile? Put you in jail? Get you burned at the stake?

Good. Now you can write something that's off the leash. Perhaps something you'll need to dial back for safety's sake. Or destroy. That's success. That's testing your limits. That's finding options to write stories that break new ground and challenge the culture.

Too dark? Find the healing. Find the way home. Find the reconciliation. Find the happy ending. Take the trip from damnation to ecstasy. It will be unlike anything else. Never settle for the journey from discomfort to calm.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Stories off the Leash 5 - Making the most of bad choices

While it's easy to lose your audience by having your character make a stupid choice, there are lots of ways protagonists can make bad decisions in ways that draw readers in. All of these take some thought, consideration, and planning, so you might as well make them pay off for you as a writer. In other words, don't skimp on disaster.

This may seem obvious, but many writers identify with their characters. They don't want them to suffer, and they let them off the hook. It is a hard thing to become the torturer of a hero or heroine you love. Do it anyway. As Nick Lowe said, "You've Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind."

Other writers don't do the work. They don't dare to imagine how bad things can get. Take a chance. Sort through each level of Maslow's Hierarchy and imagine a single choice or an unfortunate combination of choices depriving your character of essential needs, including life itself. You don't have to (and often shouldn't) hit your hero or heroine with the most extreme consequences, but it doesn't cost anything to consider them.

Whatever the results of a bad decision, they must make the protagonist's failure more likely. Ideally, they will raise the stakes as well. If you lose the race, you won't just be humiliated. You'll lose your job. Ore maybe your life.

Rejecting the idea of bad things seems to be wired into a lot of people, so the consequences of bad choices must be undeniable. Make what happens to the hero or heroine clear and unmistakable. This is one case where it is good to be repetitive. Subtlety will only work against you because it will diminish the impact or even make readers resentful if, later on, they illusion of everything being okay is shattered.

Similar to this is the requirement to make the disaster irreversible. Yes, a broken leg can heal, but not before the big game. And it's best if the leg is simply amputated. Whatever happens after the disaster, the protagonist can never be the same again.

Do make sure the consequences are out-sized. Consequences that follow reasonably from a decision tend to be predictable, moderate... and less interesting. Always make sure they feel unfair. If possible, include a nasty surprise.

Once you have settled on dreadful consequences, don't hesitate to turn the screw. It always feels worse if it is a surprise. I'm not a fan of complete surprises, though they can work and be reasonable. Usually, some hint beforehand keeps the reader from feeling manipulated. Or you can have karma catch up with the hero. That's when he or she gets away repeatedly with an action that should have consequences (say, teasing a lion or posting cartoons that mock a powerful villain). Then there is an overreaction. Bang.

You can also increase the pain by having the disaster happen because of trust. When a protagonist does something, even though it feels a little risky, because a friend or lover offers assurances or encouragement, and then horrible results are suffered because of the trusted person's betrayal, it can be agonizing.

Often, the hurt is worst of all when innocents and/or loved ones suffer the consequences. This heaps guilt and shame on the protagonist, which can trump physical pain and make something like a limp or a disfigurement a lifelong reminder of failure.

In his terrific book Story, Robert McKee asks writers to explore damnation. There is no middle ground in the best fiction. It is about pushing the story to its limits. So seek damnation.