Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What’s holding back your writing career? - An unscientific test

Some writers imagine themselves with multi-book, mega-buck contracts. Other see themselves holding an Oscar for best original screenplay. And many would be happy to sell a short story or get a memoir finished for the family. Coming up short isn’t in itself a problem. As Browning said, “"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" But I think being deeply frustrated because of fixable problems is tragic.

With that in mind, I present another one of my completely unscientific diagnostic tests. I won’t be checking your answers, so you get to decide if it illuminates barriers, delusions, or distractions that are holding you back from achieving your goals. The imagined goal for the test-taker is a person who wants to be a novelist who makes a little money on writing. Transpose your conclusions to fit your actual ambitions.

For each pair, choose a score from one to ten, giving yourself nearer one if the first statement feels more like the truth and and nearer to ten if the second statement feels more like the truth.

1 Other priorities - Most writers claim they don’t have enough time to write. The truth is that few writers have the time to write and revise all the stories they wish to tell. What they do have is a dedication to the work that carves out time for it. In my experience, working with hundreds of writers, the minimum required is 15 minutes a day, five days a week, committed to moving one Work in Progress (WIP) to completion.

Several times a year, I spend a week without writing. / I rarely go through a week where I don’t write five days on my WIP.

2 Poor choices - What you write matters. Some people pursue what they believe is the easiest course, but if that means working in a genre that doesn’t interest you or telling a story you’re not invested in just because it has a great concept, that’s unlikely to lead to success. Routinely beginning new projects before finishing a WIP (and not having any criteria for selecting a WIP) means delays in finishing works or not finishing them at all. Having difficulty deciding which project to work on demonstrates a lack of focus. Chasing every new opportunity (contests, markets, gigs) without at least a general career plan and selection process only leads to confusion.

I have several active projects and could not articulate how each of them move me toward success. / I am committed to a WIP that fits criteria that move me closer to achieving my writing ambitions.
3 Fear - Whether you call it the doubt monster or the critic in your head, it is a part of you that challenges or dismisses what you do. All writers have this. In fact, it’s necessary. If you are delighted with your first drafts, it’s unlikely you’ll do the work required to suitably revise your stories for real audiences. A successful writer can manage these negative voices during the drafting stages (and, as needed, during rewrites).

Useless fears are along the lines of “what would my mom say about this?” No one sees the work unless you put it out there. “I have nothing to say” is another fear that is baseless. We all have stories others are interested in. If you don’t believe that, sit down now and write your most embarrassing moment. Fear of failure? It’s really fear of trying, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to worry about failure or success in the absence of a completed work. There also may be an over-focussing on weaknesses, from lack of experience (guess how you get experience) to shortcomings in craft (character development, plotting, grammar, etc.).

Every writer has weaknesses. And, yes, these need to be overcome enough to reach professional minimums (though, perhaps with help from an editor). The best come to understand their strengths and appreciate and develop these.

Anxiety keeps me away from writing or sabotages my work on a weekly basis. / I am able to put aside fear and negativity enough to get my work done almost all the time.
4 Lack of commitment - Even though dwelling on weakness can become a barrier, ignoring them is not a good idea. Writers should be dedicated to growing and developing through exercises, courses, and mostly attentively reading other writers. Some writers go stale by writing the same thing over and over again. Others get lazy and reduce their attention to selecting and developing concepts or going through sufficient rewrites. Good writers who get better take pride in their work (while avoiding perfectionism. They don’t abandon work when it gets difficult. They step out of their comfort zones and learn from failures.

My approach to craft and my career is ad hoc, going where the spirit leads me. / I have articulated what I have to achieve, I have specific tasks (including development work) aimed at getting me there, and my calendar includes deadlines for achieving tasks.

5 Unhelpful guidance - When you tell people you write, you will meet those who see that as an invitation to make nasty remarks. There is no way you can write stories of a high enough quality or can be prolific enough or edgy enough or responsible enough to satisfy self-appointed critics. Family and friends can get into your head — out of concern for your well-being, the need to right your wrongs, snark, jealousy, or the need to put you in your place. If your work goes out into the world, complete strangers will troll you. Sometimes, they’ll carry the title of critics. Peers and would-be mentors and teachers may also undercut your confidence, challenging your skills, talents, and choices. It can drag your writing down and even block you. The solution is compartmentalize this unhelpful guidance, which may mean removing topics of conversation or ending contact with some people.

A self-inflicted wound is comparing yourself to other writers. Often this means comparing your work to completed, edited work, which is crazy. As is jealousy of others’ success. You are not competing with anyone. Only you can tell your stories, and no one has complete control over how their stories are received.

Allied to this topic is concern about a lack of credentials, whether that means education or perspectives (as in writing from the point of view of another race or sex). This only (possibly) matters for nonfiction. For the rest, you may make mistakes, but, as long as you write with integrity, your expertise and identity will not trump the authenticity of your endeavor.

I feel every criticism and clutch the negative ones with both hands. / When I pay attention to others’ views of my work or my career, I explore the comments dispassionately and make changes in response to the very few that are important and resonate with me.
How did you do? Looking at the low scores, do any of them hint at what might need attention? Do the statements on the right suggest solutions to you? And not to make this all negative, are some of your high scores indicative of strengths that will help you reach your ambitions?

Sadly, there are clinical issues that can hold people back. Writers frequently suffer from depression, attention deficit, and obsession with perfection. Outside forces, like illness, injury, poverty, being a care provider, and legal problems can stymie a career. These do not have easy answers, and they usually require the help of an expert.

There also seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the idea of being writers or having things written, but who don’t actually have writing as part of their lives. Some have no idea what the actual job is comprised of (even if they have taken dozens of courses). They either don’t write or write only when they are inspired. If you’re one of these people, perhaps this test was entertaining, but I doubt it will motivate you to move from aspirations to actions.

But my hope is that for many writers, this test will indicate where brainstorming new approaches to writing will lead to action that leads to greater success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 3 - An approach to creating awe for readers

Go to the right place. Wait. Listen. Welcome. Develop. Tune. Set. This is one process for including wonder in your stories. It isn’t the only process. And it isn’t guaranteed. But, with enough attempts, it will succeed (on occasion) and create the potential for rich experiences in your stories. When it doesn’t succeed, even when every word of your wonder-full scene gets cut, the process will still make you a better writer.

So let’s go through these steps, one by one.

Go to the right place. In real life, this can mean experiencing great art. (Put me in front of a Vermeer.) Or Nature (Grand Canyon or backyard garden.) Or being present during a positive life event (birth, first steps, first love). Caution: If you are operating a video camera during any of these, wonder won’t show up for you.
All of the life experiences make wonder in stories possible and more probable. But, for me, wonder often happens as I’m writing. I smile for no reason. A chill goes down my back. And then?
Wait. Often, wonder is preceded by quiet, even boredom. I feel like I need to let myself synchronize with something bigger. Is there a door opening?
Listen. The Old Testament refers to “a still small voice.” (And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. ) That makes sense to me. Wonder does not seem to declare itself with cannons, though it can seem to fill the senses as it progresses. It is easy to miss. Which is why distractions are such a pain.
Welcome. Look up “amazement” in the thesaurus, and you’ll see shock, horror, and fear. Wonder is uncontained and uncontrolled. It is humbling. It is uncomfortable in a profound sense. The way to experience it is to let go.
Develop. Wonder is expressed poetically. In fiction, it chooses its own first draft. But once it is recorded, it needs to be imagined in a way that can reach an audience. The dream needs to be reshaped for others, without losing its dreamlike quality. This is delicate stuff. I see the first draft as being a poem written in a different language that I’m obliged to translate faithfully.
Tune. The expression of wonder now needs to be looked over objectively. I remove (or repair) in this order distractions, confusion, and ego. Then I test each word. Is it the right word? Does it need to be there?
Set. This consists of three things: 1) Make sure this wonder belongs in the longer story. If it is not thematic, find it another home. 2) Create a gentle segue. What comes before wonder needs to be grounded in the familiar world and quiet. In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the black and white farm house lands with a jolt. The background music stops. Dorothy says, “Oh.” Then, except the sounds a basket being picked up and a door opening, there’s quiet. Until she opens the door to Oz. What follows is music, color, and wonder. 3) End the scene (or better yet, the chapter). Let it resonate.

The goal of wonder is to open the door to uncountable, unexpected possibilities for your readers. Ideally, the theme explored in the rest of the story supports this experience without putting barriers around it.

Why not go directly to great themes of life and literature and build scenes around them? In my experience, that’s unlikely to work. Maybe wonder is contrary. Maybe it is too evanescent. My suspicion is that, like happiness, it’s best not to pursue it directly because it is the product of many good choices. But, if you must, give it a try.

Also, it’s worth learning to recognize wonder even when it comes to you without any process. Surprise is one of its features (both in writing and in life). When you experience wonder, appreciate the moment and respond. Capture and learn. Then it might be valuable to go back and explore it’s origins. You may come up with a better approach than the one I’ve laid out here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 2 - Threats to feelings of awe

When wonder is part of your story, it becomes memorable. It adds impact and builds connections with readers. If you look at the stories people take as there own, often to the point of obsession, you’ll often find scenes that create a sense of awe.

I think writers need to clear a space in their writing for wonder because there are story elements that may work against it:

Expectations - A lot of writing guidance is about setting up expectations and fulfilling these (sometimes with a twist). This is basic to much of storytelling, but it can tie things down to the mundane and reduce the range of possibilities. It also can provide a level of preparation that may be necessary at times (to avoid cheating the reader), but suggests too much. Wonder sneaks up on people. It usually shows up as a surprise. And I’ve frequently found that it is preceded not by hooks and questions being raised, but by quiet scenes that have authenticity. These scenes build trust and put readers into calmer states without boring them. I call such scenes gentle segues.

Distractions - This one goes for writing as well as reading. I don’t think wonder can be appreciated and conveyed by writers who don’t clear out the noise and commotion of life from time to time. And writing that reminds people of these or gives protagonists tasks that are too familiar works against stepping away from the commonplace.

Negativity - There is important and inspiring work that deals with negative issues. And protagonists who aren’t seriously flawed can’t have dramatic character arcs. However… wonder seems to require appreciation of the positive aspects of life. It seems to reward optimism and a focus on what is good and nurturing. When pain, betrayal, temptation, and cruelty are around, wonder seems to move out of reach. In particular, moments of loss — which have real virtue in storytelling — are the opposites of wonder. (Complementing loss and wonder in a story is powerful, but very difficult.)

Ego - Voice and perspectives enhance writing, but, when the ego is around — and especially when it is too controlling — everything gets framed and contained. Wonder and boundaries, especially those driven by ego, don’t go together.

Spoilers - Remember the point about surprise and the unexpected? It amazes me how often writers create scenes that, taken by themselves, could create wonder (and sometimes actually do in early drafts), but kill them with tips and setups that undercut the surprise. I think this is motivated in part by the intent not to cheat. But mostly, I think this dross is added because the writer or a critic/reader/editor is disturbed by the wonder experience. And needs to diminish it.

Small scope - Cramped stories don’t leave much room for wonder. On the other hand, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film has an enormous canvas for storytelling and it makes heavenly bodies part of the story. Having a larger scope doesn’t make wonder inevitable, but stories that focus on infinity, vastness, and nature are ahead of stories that are too close to daily experiences. Spectacle isn’t required. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, could find wonder in a garden. But, while being in the moment enhances most stories, stepping out of the moment allows for wonder. Any story that supports awareness of eternity is likely to find wonder.

Humor - This may seem strange, especially since I focused on The Fisher King, a film Terry Gilliam (a Python, no less), when I kicked off this series. But I think humor tends to bring things down to size, and wonder is the opposite. In addition, humor is often driven by anger, which is a negative emotion. Gilliam creates a space for his scene. It includes gentle humor (dancing nuns), but nothing broad. And it is loving and accepting, without a hint of anger.

Humor is good to end this post with because it illustrates that this list is not set in stone. As I thought about genres that discourage wonder, my mind went immediately to heist films, which are about thrills and twists and turns and, ultimately, greed. Then I remembered the ending of Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven. When the gang gathers around the fountain, it’s ethereal. I remember how I felt wonder at that moment. So anything is possible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 1 - Reader delight

Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King has a moment that opens the Universe to me. It’s the waltz in Grand Central Station. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. Or, better yet, watch the full movie.

What works for me and makes this scene magical is the sense of wonder it creates.
When I first saw it, it took me by surprise and, on an unconscious level, caused me to imagine a world bigger than myself. I sensed an uncontrollable cascade of possibilities. In Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, a Parkinson’s patient speaks of “dancing out of frame.” That’s wonder.

Wonder is often accompanied by surprise, thrills, joy and a sense of hope, but I don’t think any of these contain it. I thought about this in terms of a quote from Stephen King about three kinds of horror.

“The Gross-out: …it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: … it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”

By analogy to gross-out/horror/terror, maybe it’s recognition/insight/wonder. Recognition is making a connection that matters to us, and it is visceral. An insight crystallizes ideas to present a new conclusion (and is often intellectual). Wonder takes us out of ourselves. Its impact can’t be boxed in, exhausted, or completely intellectualized. I would say it is mostly spiritual.

Why does this matter to a writer? For me, because I want to do something as wonderful as Terry Gilliam has. I want to create this experience for readers. Wonder is part of my life, and I want to share it through my work.

More practically, I think many of the most interesting cult films and those works that attract intense fans do so because people prize the experience of wonder. Science fiction explicitly claims the sense of wonder as one of its values, and I think that explains the dedication of its fans in large part. The themes — a future that reframes the present through new powers, reimagined social rules, and the possibilities of technologies that transform our destiny — are big and have a natural claim on wonder. First contact with aliens is a persistent SF theme, as are other firsts.

And firsts may be the most common causes of wonder in real life. (Like, for instance, the first time you hold your newborn child.)

The romance genre can claim wonder, too. In fact, when done correctly, the first of love (meet cute, first kiss, etc.) open up worlds for characters and readers. (It’s less true when these first become too common tropes, but that can be true in any form of literature. There are plenty of horror stories that lean heavily on the gross-out.

I believe stories should entertain. They can do that without wonder, but the work stands out and becomes more memorable if it has a moment of wonder. Entertainment and wonder together can become art, as is the case with James Joyce’s short stories, where he consciously worked to include “epiphanies.” To my mind, those were moments of wonder that raised those stories to a higher level.

Creating wonder is more an art than a science, but there are ways potential moments of wonder get ruined. Often, these are driven by practices intended to make stories more entertaining, but I suspect, looking more closely, a writer can cut out the parts written to engage the reader without losing them. And gaining wonder will be the result. I’ll get into wonder killers in my next post.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Slaying the Doubt Monster - Another view of confidence

Is the story good enough? Are you really a good writer? Do you have the chops to tell the story that you care about? Are you working on the right story? Can this be fixed?

Every writer has doubts along the way. They may be tied to something as abstract as imposter syndrome or an inferiority complex. They may be as real as the negative voices of teachers, parents, and editors taking residence in your head. Or as specific as a line that maybe hilarious — or hackneyed.

Doubt is just fine when it spurs us to rise to our better selves, when it pushes us to better prose and storytelling. It’s less than worthless when it turns to quicksand and bring work to a halt. Or a career to a halt. It also can, insidiously, infect our work. Confidence is something that readers (including editors and agents) can sense. And long for. They want to be swept away by a writer who is confident. Who brings, not just talent and craft, but judgment and taste.

I’ve written in the past about instilling confidence. This time, I have a few notes on dispelling doubt.

Lack of experience. Stephen King famously tossed Carrie in the trash. He felt it was ridiculous for him to tell a story from the point of view of a teenaged girl, based not much more (in his view) than having cleaned restrooms in a high school. Luckily his wife was there to reassure him and provide encouragement. She had the experience of being a teenaged girl, after all.

You can look for people who have lived lives similar to your characters and bring your work to them. They might not read a novel, but they are likely to read and comment on a well-drawn scene. Or, even better, to answer specific questions about their experiences.

Even more fundamentally, by virtue of having lived your own life, you have relevant and authentic experiences to draw upon. You may not have been tortured in the Inquisition, but you probably have suffered pain and fear. The classic war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was written by a man who had never been in a battle, but who knew what failure and panic felt like. To those, he added a vivid imagination. Most children’s books are not written by children, but, somehow, they hit the mark.

Lack of credentials. We all love hierarchies, wonderful human constructs that tell us what our roles are. And assure others that we can be trusted to draw up their wills or perform open heart surgery on them. While credentials for nonfiction might be important in some cases, there are no essential certifications for storytelling. Many people in the arts, in fact, only get to join professional organizations after they have had paying gigs.

But it’s very easy to get caught up in the letters after names or accomplishments no one is born having. You have the right to write. Period. No one can tell you you can’t tell your stories. Except you. And why would you stop yourself because you don’t have an MFA or a completed script? If you write, you’re a writer.

There are some people who fret about grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. They never got what they needed in grade school or high school. Or, worse, they got lots of discouragement (because it’s easier to point to one of these errors than to respond to a story). Here’s why, though this might matter, it is not fundamentally important:

There are armies of people with impeccable credentials eager to edit you spelling and grammar to perfection.

It’s mechanical stuff. More and more of the task is being taken over by software. Great storytelling, on the other hand, is rare. And Artificial Intelligence has not provided us with masterpieces or even best sellers.

The best news is that reading and writing regularly tend to lead to fewer mechanical flaws in prose, at least in the final draft. Coincidentally, this is likely to lead to continuous improvement of the storytelling, too.

Challenges of scale. Mostly, this has to do with big projects (though I know some novelists who would shudder if asked to write a short story). It is possible to dedicate months — many months — to writing a novel or a screenplay that doesn’t turn out.

Sometimes, this has to do with concepts that are underdeveloped or inappropriate for the chosen medium. Which is one reason I believe, once, say, thirty pages of a novel are completed, it’s time to write arguments to yourself about why the work must be finished. This serves the purpose of getting you past the inevitable “this stinks” moment about 3/4 of the way through. It also provides a well-informed vetting of the project. With words on paper, you may see that the choice is not good. And you can quit without having made a substantial investment.

Sometimes, the project is full of promise, but the writer does not have the skills yet. This is not tragic, even though it won’t feel great. Almost all writers stretch and develop their craft by pushing at the limits of capabilities. That how those capabilities increase. Most first novels and first scripts (and sometimes tenth novels and tenth scripts) end up shoved in a drawer or under the bed. These are not failures. They are part of the education experience.

Criticism. This is probably the biggest source of doubt. You show your work to someone and they bury you in negativity. (Few people have the good sense to tell you what you’re doing right.) Sometimes, within the pile (or behind the one cutting remark), there is something worth learning. For these, I write down the criticism and return to it when I am calm and confident. That’s when analysis can be useful.

Sometimes, they are well-meaning, but completely wrong. There’s no food for the doubt monster in those comments. I get them most often when I look for expert opinion on facts and the person volunteers story fixes. Recognize some comments are worthless. This comes across most obviously when just one person makes that point. (Although, oral comments in a writers’ group can, unfortunately , take on a life of their own as groupthink asserts itself.)

Sometimes, the criticisms are packed with emotion. Because people can be dark. Because people have their own issues. Here’s a truth worth learning. Anyone who berates you as a person when they critique is not worth listening to. Anyone who makes a comment on a manuscript in a way that is intended to make you feel bad can be ignored. In fact, these people should, if possible, never see your work again. The trolls are out there. Avoid them.

The doubt monster (mostly) is not your friend. Are the doubts sometimes true? Of course. All of us are flawed writers just as we’re flawed human beings. You learn, over time, to be good enough in some areas so readers will appreciate it when you go with your strengths. It’s fine to work (but not obsess) on your limits in craft, emotional engagement, concepts, and storytelling. But don’t expect perfection. It is often the flaws that reveal the real treasure.