Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Write Who You Are 3 - What you care about

The stories you were born to tell are essential to you. They are intertwined with how you see the world, what you value, experiences that have changed you, and the connections you have with others. They touch on your principles and your sense of justice, but also on your obsessions and what you find irresistible.

Do you know what you care about? Not all writers do.

It's easier to look at your favorite creative people and see what they care about. Take a minute and list five films you love or TV shows you can't miss or novels that you've reread. If, for any of these, the writers or directors have a body of work you're familiar with, you probably can identify what they care about.

Martin Scorsese is, among other things, focused on loyalty (and betrayal), violence, and religion. Woody Allen is obsessed with the meaning of existence, communication (and miscommunication), and sex. George R. R. Martin is fascinated by power, duty, language, and pride.

You can probably add to the above easily, both expanding on my thumbnails and delineating the passions of the artists who form your personal pantheon. By doing that, you'll find some of the things you care about most. Certainly, we are attracted to works that are far from our own interests -- most writers are insatiably curious -- but a high percentage of the novels you read and the movies and television shows you watch reflect your own delights, concerns, and questions.

If you look at the people you surround yourself with, you probably can list what they care about -- a skill of yours that's evident if they appreciate your recommendations, advice, and gifts. Again, if you write down these obsessions, chances are some of what you record will resonate with you. Some of it will tell you what matters to you and provide direction on what you're meant to write.

It's good to continue to explore what you care about most. Diaries, your past writing, the answers you give people with problems, embarrassing moments, memories you revisit, and risky actions can all provide clues. Some will be enchanting and some will be disturbing, but all of them will be irreplaceable treasures for you as a writer.

Here are a few caveats: Not everything you find compelling will lead to your best work. Don't try to use dreams directly for stories because they rarely can be given the context they need to appeal to others. Grudges and grievances tend to be petty, reducing the scope of your themes (though they can be good fodder for comedy). Fresh wounds and infatuations seem like the real thing, but they are usually too new to have been processed by your artistic sensibilities. Take notes for later.

Looking for more? Try these:
  • Who were your childhood heroes?
  • What are your favorite sayings?
  • What's the biggest mistake you ever made?
  • What's the hardest choice you ever faced (or one you hope never to face)?
  • Did someone ever deeply disappoint you or betray you?
  • What would be the worst thing to lose (possession, relationship, talent, memory)?
For any of these that resonate, see if you can write about 200 words exploring the details and why it is meaningful to you. Think in terms of family, community, justice, vulnerability, and right and wrong. Pay attention to your emotions.

You may find some stories, and that's good. But the most important things you can discover, by approaching yourself sideways, are the themes that matter most to you, the very ones that are obvious in the work of your favorite creators. Once you have these, you'll be in possession of essential keys to telling the stories that offer the most to you and your readers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

300 Productivity Posts - Celebration and FAQ for ambitious writers

Welcome to the (more or less) 300th How To Write Fast post. I still haven't run out of things to say. In fact, in addition to weekly posts, I'm deep into a book on writing productivity that will be out in the spring. 

In the meantime, now's a good time to celebrate. (I'm taking a break from the Write Who You Are Series. It will continue next week) I can't think of a better way to share the moment than to answer the top questions I get in my classes.

What's the best thing I can do to improve my productivity?
The most effective positive action I've seen with students is to 1) Set a timer 2) Type words that push your work in progress forward from the time it starts to the time it finishes.

No rewriting, no researching, and as little pondering as possible. The goal of drafting is to capture a complete work with a beginning, middle, and end. It isn't to capture a final work, polished and perfect.

What's the commitment? I've cut it to the bone, and for most people the minimum is about 20 minutes a day, five days a week. This provides the habits and continuity that are essential to storytelling. It is extremely helpful if sometime during the day before, you write down a prep sentence for the work. Then you'll know each time you sit down what you're going to write.

What's wrong with rewriting as I go along?
There is nothing morally wrong with writing any way you like, and what works for you works for you. Also, please note: With the exception of people who hire me as a coach, you will not have me standing behind you and groaning as you loop back to previous paragraphs or chapters to "just get them right."

With that said, looping is the most common practice I see getting in the way of completing stories. It is the stumbling block that keeps people who write every day from getting past the first few chapters of a novel or from having the productivity they want.

The reason for this appears to be that revising comes from a different part of the brain than drafting. So switching back and forth saps energy. It also leads to discouragement as progress is slowed and the editor in your head is always stepping up to the lectern to criticize and berate you.

If you are a happy looper or you've determined it's the only way to write a quality manuscript, who am I to disagree? But if you loop and are unhappy with your productivity, take steps to break the habit.

Why do I have to stick with my Work In Progress (WIP)?
I get it. People who write regularly get new ideas all the time. Some of them, invariably, seem better that what's happening in the WIP. And it feels good to do something else when the WIP work gets difficult or every sentence feels stale and weak.

The problem is that forsaking your commitment to the WIP and chasing the next shiny thing is too easy and rarely helps you gets you where you want to go. If you doubt this, check with your fellow writers who do this and ask them how many have dozens of unfinished works around or worse, how often they dither about which work to take on.

It is perfectly okay to explore a new concept. It is fine to get notes down on a dream that felt like the next O. Henry Prize winner. You can cheat a little on you WIP and still get it finished. The trick is making sure that five days a week for twenty minutes on each of those day, you are faithful to the WIP, moving it forward to completion.

How do I choose the right project?
This depends on where you are as a writer, what commitments you have, what you hope to learn, where your passions lie, and what your career goals are. Any or all of these can drive your priorities and which manuscript becomes your next WIP. My recommendation is that you explore these and other factors and explicitly write out your criteria for choosing a project. You may then (if you are as geeky as I am), develop a way to score potential projects and order them according to the results. If all this sounds like too much, just list potential projects and go with the one for which you have the most passion. Trust your heart. Make the commitment. Move forward. Get it finished.

How do I have fun with my writing?
Sadly, this is not really a frequently asked question. Perhaps the Puritans have left their mark on too many of the writers I meet (and it's not a coincidence that they are concerned about productivity). Yet, it belongs here. Your enthusiasm, your engagement, and the endorphins released as you get into the flow of your writing are not inconsequential to your productivity. Writing can be frustrating, emotionally painful, and tedious at times. But if writing is drudgery most of the time, you're not doing it right. You need to step back and rediscover the joy.

Why did you want to write to begin with? What have been your best experiences? What inspires you? And, perhaps most importantly, what are you afraid of? Because, if you have come to dread sitting down and bringing character to life, chances are you've created unreasonable expectations or you're afraid of being judged or of failing.

Try these:
  • Think of the scene you most want to write in your WIP. Write your prep sentence, and then write that scene tomorrow. 
  • Write something related to your WIP that you'll never use directly in your finished version -- an interview with a character, a description of the coolest place in your world, a complete scene written in the style of you favorite writer.
  • Do your writing in a different way -- with music if that not typical or in longhand or in comic sans font.
  • Write a scene from the point of view of an intriguing character whom you've never given a voice.
  • Create a storyboard for one of your pivotal scenes.
In other words, take the pressure off. Shake things up and do something that "doesn't count." Make amusing yourself a project.

Okay. That's five questions and answers. I'm happy to answer your specific question in comments.

Next week, I'll write the 301st blog post, continuing the Write Who You Are series.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Write Who You Are 2 - Emotional truths

If you feel it and express it honestly, others will feel it. If your emotions deep, you will move people deeply.

Honest emotions - Try this. Put a smile on you face that feels like a real smile. Do this even if you don't feel happy at the moment. Hold onto that smile, close your eyes, and count to twenty.

Done? Chances are you're feeling happy. On one level, this is real, but I tend to side with the Greeks who believed feeling happy when the realities don't warrant it is like feeling healthy when we have undiagnosed cancer. To find your emotional truths in a world where external forces -- false communities (Vonnegut's Granfalloons), pharmaceuticals, and propaganda (including advertisements) -- shape how we feel, we need to look more closely.

Begin with your own stories, those that prompt emotions.  In Susan Shapiro's article, "Make Me Worry You're Not Okay," she suggests you write three pages on your most humiliating secret. Not a bad start. (Remember, this is to uncover emotion for your story, so you don't have to share these pages.) You also might take a look at the suggestions I provided to get to know your character better. Instead of exploring the character, you might explore yourself. Not enough? Here's another article with 650 prompts. Or consider this advice on writing the personal essay.

Prompts to elicit and reveal emotion don't need to be limited to asking questions or writing essays. Family pictures and videos, letters from lovers, and visits to places that were pivotal in your life can do the job, too. It may be possible to use art (music, movies, poetry) to reach inside, too, but be careful. Some of the emotions might qualify as external forces, with all their limits. 

Deeper emotions -- As you work to stir up emotions, not all your feelings will be equal. Beware of irritation, amusement, annoyance, contentment, and any emotions that would not motivate action that involves real risk. If it gets you out of your chair and the stakes are high, it's good for fiction that reveals who you (and your characters) are. That's the work that will set you apart as an artist while getting readers to identify with your stories and characters. There is one strong emotion to treat with caution -- anger. Anger tends to be real, but not true. It is often a mask for other strong emotions like shame, grief, or fear.

Once you have identified and felt an authentic, deep emotion, the trick is expressing it well within a story. It may seem easiest if you are conveying, with a slight disguise, the actual situation in your story. But expecting success by reporting "what really happened" in your story runs into a tangle of problems from the truth being strange (and not easily believed) to lacking context (like a dream, with the resonance in your head being strong, but not available to others).

Most often, my approach is similar to a method actor's. I work with the (carefully selected) story at hand, where character, story structure, and situation are set up deliberately. Then I figure out the emotional essence of the scene, refresh my emotions with a chosen life experience, and draft the scene quickly, making the emotional journey as I do. For other ideas on emotions and storytelling, look at my post, Five Keys to Bigger Emotions.

Emotions propel readers and audiences. Getting to emotion can even work when you're writing something that is not your story. But what you write when you combine emotional truths with the tales you were meant to tell can reach the highest levels of art and entertainment. Which stories are the ones you were born to tell? It depends on what you care about. That's the subject of the next post in this series, which I'll make available in two weeks. Next week, I'll be celebrating the 300th How To Write Fast post. I hope you'll join me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Write Who You Are 1 - Your truths

The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself. Not in terms of ego. But in terms of sharing your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. While this is obviously true for memoir and some other nonfiction, it's essential for fiction. No matter how crazy and distant from facts your story is, if it is excellent, it contains truths that are expressed in unique ways.

Now, there's nothing wrong with writing stories that are not distinct to who you are. Everyone begins writing by imitating – consciously or unconsciously – the works of others. And it's okay to do work on assignment, to explore stories with prompts, to take on a high concept that isn't in your sweet spot, or otherwise see what will happen with an interesting idea. Developing your craft, playing around with notions that come your way, and paying bills are all valid activities. Even taking a folk story or an entertaining scenario and giving it an audience-pleasing twist has its place.

But, if you want to fulfill your vocation as a writer and, I suspect, give yourself the best chance of success, mining the value of who you are is the advice I'd give. The payoff for you and your audience will be details that could have come from no one else and a kind of deep resonance that only comes from authenticity. So let's look at the essential elements:

Have you heard of the idea of a platform? Deep knowledge is usually put down as one of the required items for people who write nonfiction, but it can be just as valuable for fiction writers. The expertise you have – through education or having lived in specific cultures, geographies, or organizations (such as military) – automatically adds interest to your work. I think this is obvious when what you know is unusual, say from having grown up in an Amish community. But don't underestimate your knowledge of what you might consider mundane.

Even something as common as being raised in the suburbs can become special -- even outré --
through careful observation. Look closely and find what others haven't. Sometimes this requires research, even when all the fact seem obvious. Keep at it until you have specifics that are n some way surprising.

Much of your knowledge comes from experiences, but experiences offer more than facts. Your life is filled with stories of learning. These come from looking for answers to questions, getting surprised by life, dealing with adversity, and finding ways to relate to people were different from you. Experiences arrive as half formed, even fully formed, stories, with the contextual information, sequence, and, for lack of a better word, rhythms that automatically provide something enhanced and worth sharing. The one caution on using experiences in storytelling is not to adhere too closely to what actually happened. Stories have their own realities that may be damaged by sticking to the facts.

The elements of your life, especially those that involve struggle and change, provide insights – those special flashes of wisdom and truth that come with deliberation and analysis. In fiction, these may be delivered to readers in a single line of dialogue or in the denouement that answers the story question. I think insights are among the most valuable assets of a storyteller, and they are often revealed to the writer in the telling. In fact, the theme of the story may not come into clear focus until a full draft is done, and sometimes even later.

I have some more thoughts on writing stories only you can tell in terms of sharing emotions (and emotional truth), focusing on what you care about, celebrating the individual, and selecting projects based on care, devotion, and meeting challenges. I'll cover those in future posts, but I end here with the idea of perspective.

Is all too easy to share conventional points of view. This is obvious when it comes to social issues, where the right answers or the opposing answers embedded in our cultures are familiar to us. Here's a hint: if it is familiar to all of us, it doesn't need to be shared.

Instead, look for the perspectives you have that are not same as others. Dare to imagine that these points of view, which you may worry about sharing because they are unconventional or don't seem to matter, are among your treasures. Brené Brown says, "We're afraid our truth isn't enough." Yet, if you think about writers (and mentors and teachers) who have mattered the most to you and why, chances are you'll find that it is their truths that make them stand out.

These truths shape our lives. These truths cause us to seek out specific authors and read everything they've written. These truths open up worlds. So, while it's okay to create stories that don't reach to the limits, see if you can discover your own truths and find ways to share them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Quick Tips for NaNoWriMo Success -- 50,000 words in 30 days

Put on a pot of strong coffee, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is back. Last year, over 350,000 people participated officially, with the goal of writing 50,000 words on one novel in the month of November.

I've provided guidance in the past, and you're welcome to look back at the details. Last year, I joined a group and hit a peak in November productivity, completing a 65,000-word novel for which I was recently offered a contract. Along the way, I provided advice to my team members, five of whom also completed their stories. With that experience behind me, let me offer some essential lessons:
  • If you don't have an outline, set aside time to make one. Have no less than 30 scenes specified with full sentences (preferably something close to prep sentences). Each one of these will give you something to review before going to sleep (so your subconscious mind gets to work on the ideas). They will ensure you have something to write about each day. It's okay to change some of these and add to the list. I added 10 scenes and reworked half of them. But this is your insurance policy.
  • Front-load your writing, if you can. Take advantage of your initial enthusiasm (and maybe that cache of frozen dinners) to overachieve. In the course of a month, things almost always come up: work deadlines, sick children, surprise visits from old friends, and tickets to ballgames. For Americans, Thanksgiving can gobble up days. You'll stress less if you have words in reserve. If you can notch 2,000 words per day for the first 15 days, you'll have the equivalent of 8 "vacation" days to draw from. Similarly, try to get some work done early in the day. For me, that usually means all of the work is done right after I wake up, but some people are night-time writers. If that's you, scribble down a few sentences before your session officially begins. That will reduce your workload and get you going.
  • Share your progress. It helps to be in contact with other writers. For some, it provides encouragement. For others, it's a goad. (I enjoyed doing sprints, where team members and I wrote during the same hour and reported back on our word counts.) You can share with other people in your household, too. That can help them know their extra chores are paying off. Just don't supply them with your draft pages.
  • Write messy and don't edit. For most people, the main point of NaNoWriMo is to get into the habit of turning off the internal critic and getting words onto the page. No one is reading this work. You can (and should) edit it later. If this is tough for you, you might try dictating -- which makes rewriting along the way almost impossible.
  • Use a timer. It's a great way to focus your work and make distractions less alluring.
  • Don't do research during your drafting time. It can eat hours and it encourages procrastination. Get close enough on the ideas. Perfection isn't necessary. If you have a specific word you can't recall, type in "bagel," and clean up the bagels in your rewriting sessions.
  • Write what you want to write. Don't worry about writing your outline in order. If a scene appeals to you, go for it. One thing I found was that, as I did this, more "in between" scenes came to mind, expanding my choices for the next day. Also, feel free to write the parts of scenes that appeal to you. Indulge in over-describing the setting. Race through a conversation writing nothing but dialogue. Write a section in poetry, if that appeals to you. Have some fun.
Okay. That should get you started. Get to work! And, if you get stuck, post a comment. I'll offer a suggestion. Have a good NaNoWriMo!