The Doldrums

I was so excited a week or so ago. I was writing like there was no tomorrow, rattling out a few connected scenes for the next installment in Valerie and Daniel’s story. There’s lots more to be written, but it’s not easy like it was. Let me tell you, I was on fire, I was getting great feedback and ideas from my writing buddies on the forum and it was clicking like my knees when I get up in the morning.

Alas, it is no more. I’ve been busy with work and meetings and watching my bank account dwindle between paychecks and my scaly, sulfurous muse has abandoned me for greener pastures, or maybe cooler climes. (It is hotter than Hellfire right now and I hate it.)

What to do?

Well, I’ve fallen back to my old standby, re-reading old stuff. Hell, I’ve got most of what I’ve written pretty much memorized. But, it’s part of the process and it led to a nice online conversation with an old online buddy. His character plays a large role in my fantasy story and I asked him  some questions and gave him examples of what I’ve written to make sure I was doing his character justice.

I think I’m doing okay. Our ‘talk’ got me thinking about the Behemoth Disjointed Fantasy Epic that I’ve been writing for years, and you know what? I got excited about it again.

Which leads me back to my meandering path. When you’re stuck, when the wind has fled your sails and the ocean around you looks like a mirror, do what you have to to get that ship sailing again. Getting away from it for a short while is okay, like I did by setting up a blog for our work-related learning, but don’t take too long getting back to your fiction. Read other stuff, talk about it with like-minded people, harrass your writing buddies, but make youself stay involved. Don’t let the latest wildly-popular-piece-of-shit novel get you down. Get angry, get determined, get writing!

(This has been a public service message from the Off Your Ass and On Your Feet Method of Writing. Send small bills, unmarked, in large quantities. Thank you.)


Shipbuilding (a.k.a. Writing and editing)

So, in lieu of writing something in my multiple works-in-progress, I am instead updating my long-neglected writing blog with another one of Jill Ciment’s brilliant analogies about writing, before it slips my mind forever.

Not dissimilar to the Jane Goodall approach to writing that I shared awhile back, it goes something like this.

When we write, we’re trying to convey ideas, a story, something, to someone else. Think of yourself on one side of a wide river, with the people you want to communicate with on the other side. Your information, your story, has to cross that expanse of water so that those people can marvel at it, and perhaps even come on board. You start by building a raft. That’s yout first draft. You work on it and think to yourself, “That’s pretty good, I can make it across.” You set sail and that booger is leaking. (With any luck you have a crew of readers and writing buddies to help you find and plug those leaks.) So you turn around and limp back to shore and you take the materials and you build a bigger vessel, sturdier and more watertight. That’s the second draft. You try again and get about halfway before turning back because it sails crooked or tries to capsize because of something you’ve added or left out. Lather, rinse, repeat, only this time, when you get about halfway across, it’s just as much trouble to turn back as it is to keep going. Now you’re getting to the finish line. There’s your potential audience, waiting on the shore, admiring your ship as she sails into port. This is when you start to market your writing, and polish up the things you discovered need attention during your maiden voyage. The book probably isn’t done, but you have a vessel worthy of attention at this point.

My point is, to keep going, keep writing, keep improving on that raft until she’s the Queen Mary. You may have a Titanic now and again, but every writer does. The point is to keep bailing and keep plugging the leaks. Get help, the biggest issues with our stories is we’re often too close to them to see the glaring errors/plot hole that is making our story take on water like she’s rammed into an iceberg.

Just keep writing.

Our characters, in the ‘flesh’, so to speak

I know when I read someone else’s work, I have an image of what their characters look like. Sometimes it runs contrary to how the person is described, for some incomprehensible reason, but it happens. I’m not a neurobiologist, so I have no explanation, except good old human nature. One man decided to feed the descriptions of literary characters from classic novels into police composite-sketch software. Maria wrote about this in her writing blog so naturally I had to check it out. The fascinating results can be seen at the website The Composites.

But how do we visualize our own characters when we write? Myself, I do what lots of other people do; I think of actors or models that have the right features and perhaps even personality. That’s what happened with Alan Mueller, Valerie’s brother-in-law in my manuscript Old Dogs. He needed to be blond and blue-eyed like Valerie’s family, to make her even more of the odd one out with her dark curly hair. Before I even wrote the first line describing him, his humorous expression and personality were forming in my mind and I was reminded of Wash from Firefly. So my Alan, taking his name from the actor who portrays Wash, is Alan Tudyk in my mind.

And you can ask any of my writing buddies, they know that Daniel looks like my favorite celebrity crush, Clive Owen. The whole reason I started writing Old Dogs is because I had chosen Mr. Owen in his role as King Arthur to be the face of Garoben, in my huge rambling fantasy saga about Rayne, and I had decided to leave Rayne’s story alone for awhile but wanted to keep in the habit of writing. So that exercise turned into a novel length manuscript for which I am currently in the throes of an agent search. But Arthur wasn’t quite the right image I wanted for Captain Daniel Hollingsworth, ex- RAF, now commercial airline pilot. When I describe Daniel, I’m describing the lovely Mr.Owen. So, back to Google I went. (It’s such a hardship, doing research, finding pictures of gorgeous men to inspire my muse to do something. It’s a sacrifice I must make because I’m a writer, dahlingk…;-) And I found something more like this.

Another character that I had a hard time finding an image for in Old Dogs was Valerie. I knew what she looked like in my mind; long dark curly hair, pale freckled skin, blue eyes, short and small, but not frail-looking. She has curves. Well, there’s no way I could find all that in any one actor, and Googling things like ‘dark curly hair blue eyes’ got me lots of the right hair, but nothing else that fit my criteria. So I went to a model/actor search website that allowed me to specify exact criteria. The Donna Baldwin Agency has a database of actors and models of all types and is searchable to narrow down those zillions of photos of people. Honestly, I can’t remember if this is the website where I found the pic of the closest I could find of Valerie’s description, but it was one of these sites. Your mileage may vary.

I probably got this idea from an old online role-playing game I played several lifetimes ago. It was a bulletin board based kind of RPG, which meant that there was a lot of imagination and thought that went into the action. People interacted with each other for the most part, rather than a game-master running the action. Those sorts of adventures happened as well, but most of the population of the city of Ramsalon lived and worked and fought and played with each other. And each character’s post had an icon beside it, offering a visual image of that character for the other players. I’m positive that a great deal of my writing skills were formed in that environment. As a result, my character Rayne and her adventures are based on that gameplay. I never found an actress that fulfilled my image of Rayne. But I had written a fanfic based on the television show Highlander that was archived on a fanfic website. Someone graciously provided an graphic for the title page of my story and this was the image that looked like Rayne. I still don’t know who that artist was or where they got their idea but I am grateful. This. Is. Rayne.

However we do it, with written descriptions, index cards, or actual drawings or photographs, the fact remains that most of us writers have some strong feelings about our characters appearance. And even if these images are never seen by anyone but us, it can still be a powerful tool to inspire and prompt us to greater heights of writing.

Just Do It!

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

That Aristotle guy said it with more words, but he and Nike have the same idea in mind. It’s good advice.

But, being the giant procrastinator that I am, I write this post to remind myself as much as anyone, that the only way to realize your dreams is to do something about them. In my case, it means that in order to sell my writing, or to even finish something to try to sell it, first, I’ve got to write. And that means every day, I’ve got to get something out of my brain and onto the page/hard drive.

Every. Single. Day.

What’s keeping me from achieving this simple goal, you ask? How hard can it be to rattle out 1000 or so words, especially when you brag about how you can do it in something like thirty minutes? First of all, you aren’t supposed to be listening when I make such silly claims. Yes, I can do it, and sometimes I don’t have to dump those words like last month’s leftovers. Occasionally some of those words are even good. But very often they’re pure crap, but encasing a seed of an idea. The words may not be great in and of themsleves, but that little idea is there. And without the crap surrounding it, if that idea was still firmly stuck in my brain, such that it is, that tiny inspiration would never have a chance to receive the careful attention and encouragement of my friends who critique my writing and help me coax that seed into germination. The novel-length story I’ve ‘finished’ started out as nothing more than an excuse to fantasize about a certain British actor that I have had a celebrity crush on for years. Nothing more than that.

Aristotle speaks of excellence gained by repetition. It’s a common fact that any muscle, without regular use, will atrophy and lose its strength. The brain is not different, even if it’s not a muscle per se. Still, those neural pathways have to be stimulated into reinforcing old connections and making new ones. Repetition, repeated writing, thinking, reasoning, all serve to make those paths deeper, wider, more conducive to the frenzied electrical activity that our thoughts and ideas are made of.

Writing is what I do, yet I still find other things to do besides write. Hell, this blog entry is a distraction from the scene I should be writing. But it’s still writing. I’m taking my idea out of my brain and putting it where it can invade your brain and maybe shake a thought or two loose. Maybe this idea even likes what it finds in your mind and decides to stick around awhile, kick the tires, see where it can go. Take it places, show it a good time. If it inspires an idea that leads to more writing, excellent. But even if it just makes you think about it, even for just a few minutes, it has done its job.

Go forth and write, my friends. Make it a habit, show writer’s block who’s boss.

I’m going to do that right now.

Right after I check my email.

Getting the story across: Building bridges to your readers

Not this,

but this.

You write, carefully recording the stories your characters tell you about their lives. You polish and revise and then send your words out into the world, like a mother sending her children off to kindergarten for the first time, hoping that they’ll a) make you proud and b) not embarrass you too much.

Writers can have a bit of a blind spot about their own progeny, as any parent often does about their kids. As writers we know the backstory and the history of the characters whose lives we’re putting on display for the world to see; but the world doesn’t. When a reader picks up a book, they want to become immersed in the world within those pages, to lose themselves in the story. At least I do.

When I read, I want to be able to see the seagulls, smell the breeze coming off the ocean, hear the waves crashing against the breakwater rocks, the taste and crunch of the slightly sandy fried chicken from the picnic basket, as long as the scene is set at the beach, anyway. My point, and I do have one (aside from the one on top of my head), is that we have to make sure that we let the reader know what’s going on.

Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing? I mean, we write, we’re telling stories, aren’t we showing (not telling!) the reader what’s happening?

Yes and no.

You see, I am so guilty of rattling along, getting all the words out, enjoying a clever turn of phrase that I created (William Faulkner knew what he was talking about when he said “Kill all your darlings.”), that I forget that the words on the page don’t necessarily mean that my readers are psychically linked to me and automatically know who this person is when I introduce a character, but forget to name him right away so that he gets mixed up with the next character when I introduce him. Or I don’t describe the scenery, or a change in scenery when someone opens a door into the next room, or goes outside, or gets into an elevator. We, as writers need to use our characters’ senses to show the reader the surroundings and the setting. And we can do so much with that scenery; convey a mood by making an angry character have to shout over the noise of a crowd, or a depressed character listening to the rain coming down. We have that power.

Writing is an amazing thing. This is not my original idea, but it made so much sense when I read it. Someone said that writing was the only way that one person can take an idea out of their own head, put it on a piece of paper (or a computer screen) and give it to someone else to read, and put that idea in their head. How cool is that?

With great power comes great responsibility. That’s not to say that we need to describe every hair on the cat sitting in their lap, or read every road sign along the highway that they’re driving on. The details have to mean something, they should move the plot along by grounding it in the reality you’ve created in your story. Otherwise you’re creating a beautiful, vivid, confusing mishmash of details that don’t mean anything to the character or their story. Who cares what brand of tire is installed on the getaway car of a bank robbery? Unless of course there has been a recall on those tires for steel belt separation at high rates of speed that the criminals don’t know about.

That could be relevant to the story.


 Something to think about.

Aristotle, who knew?

At class last night, Jill Ciment, our instructor, mentioned this idea from Aristotle (you know, that Greek philosopher guy). My philosophy classes never presented the material to me like this. NOW it makes much more sense.

We were critiquing a set of stories from my fellow students (mine’s due next week, I should get cracking!). This story was a good one, but it had some details that, if interpreted one way, would make the story a cliché. If the story went down a different path, it would be much more intriguing and powerful.

Jill told us Aristotle said (and I’m looking for the actual quote as I write this) that in a story, when we get to the end we should be surprised by the ending, and also surprised that we didn’t see it coming.


That’s quite the balancing act. I realize we aren’t all writing mysteries with a whodunit plot, but in a way we are. We want our stories to have that certain something that makes readers want to read it, finish it, and long for the next part of the story, right? That means that it can’t be a formulaic series of events, interesting and unique events need to happen. Sure, you may want a happy ending, who doesn’t? (no snickering from the gutter-minded crowd) But you have to create a tension, conflict. Characters have to want something and want it bad, even if it’s just to live to see the sunrise.

But we can’t just jam a twist at the end without alluding to it. Don’t use deus ex machina to solve your plot woes. Otherwise the surprise is nothing more than some Greater Power (that would be us, the author) pulling the shades back from the story with one finger and declaring “THIS IS HOW IT WILL END. SO IT IS WRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE DONE.”


 The real art in writing (which an alarming amount of people who *don’t* do this, either by design or ignorance, still get published) is to walk that tightrope. Put your characters in awkward situations, see what they do. If you have an ending in mind, by all means, work toward that end, but don’t tell us that’s what’s going to happen. Hints, subtle and hidden within the plot, can offer hope, but don’t beat your readers over the head with it. Don’t be that puppet master with all the strings in one hand. It’s the difference between using a fishing fly or dynamite to land the big one. Sure, dynamite is effective, but it’s not necessary and tends to piss off the neighbors.
Sometimes our characters surprise us by deciding that there’s no way in hell they’re going to sit in that car and await rescue in the middle of a thunderstorm. They’re getting out and walking home, even if it is crashing with thunder and lightning, pouring rain and ten miles to the nearest sign of civilization. If your characters are like mine, they frequently thumb their nose at me and refuse to do what I tell them. Must be similar to having children.

And this Aristotle guy is full of excellent advice that applies directly to writing. Things to keep in mind:

  • Just in case you’re stuck for ideas… “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.”
  • “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

 Advice I should follow myself. Sort of like that old joke about the guy asking for directions on a New York street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • And, ain’t this the truth? “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

Who knew Aristotle could be so relevant to my madness?

I’d have said the right thing, but it must have been the wrong line

rewiting, as imagined by M. C. Escher

…(thanks Dr. John!)

I love having a workshop to look forward to. Be it in our little forum online, or through my classes at the Institution of Higher Learning by which I am employed and provided with the opportunity to attend classes, I’m always learning something and improving my writing.

Earlier this week, we had our first few stories presented in class and it felt so good to read some talented interpretations of the anecdote we were given to work with. I don’t remember the name of the piece Jill, our instructor, drew it from, but it was good and had me stumped for a little while. The scenario was as follows: A poor grandmother, her granddaughter her only family, receives a letter from her ex-husband after ages of no contact. In this letter, he asks that the granddaughter be sent to live with him, as he can provide a more comfortable life, opportunities that she would not have if she remains with her grandmother, etc. If Grandma lets her granddaughter go, she will never see her again. What does she do?

Stories come from little situations like this. A snippet of a news story, and overheard conversation in a grocery store (Wal-Mart is an awesome place to overhear some doozies of redneck drama, let me tell you!), a minor character in a movie that grabs your attention, all of these and infinitely more can be the spark that starts a creative wildfire. All you have to do is write that puppy down when it catches your attention and let it mull. Just don’t be lazy and think ‘I’ll remember that when I wake up.’ Truly, if a really cool/frightening/vivid dream wakes you up, it’s a sign. Write that bitch down.

Driving back and forth to work used to be my time to let ideas roll around inside my skull, mixing and mingling (to a jingling—sorry;-) and generating images and dialogue. Since the Spousal Unit and I usually carpool these days, I don’t get to do as much of that any more. But for me, I need quiet, alone time to write without distractions, to be able to hear the voices in my head. These days I tend to do what I’m doing right now; wake up semi-early, or at least well before the Spousal Unit arises, and sit in the living room with my laptop and the front door open to the world of birdsong. Seriously, it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie right now, with all the starlings, cardinals and crows I can hear. Any sounds beyond the soundtrack of nature (such as the dog whining when a loud truck/stray cat/low-flying cloud passes by) drag me out of my creative reverie. Music, while a good damper for the distractions and one of my great loves and inspirations, becomes a distraction unto itself. I catch myself humming along and remembering the words to the song, not the words that need to appear on the page.

But back to the actual craft of writing. It’s not just putting words on paper that magically tell a story. Maybe it’s that effortless for some people, but not me. There is a time to reveal details a little at a time but withholding information that will increase dramatic tension is a mistake that we all make in the first draft. Jill has this great example of how perceptions of the reader change when more or less information is given in a story. It goes something like this:

“Oh my God, I’m pregnant, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think? Oh, by the way, I was inseminated by a chimpanzee.”

That last line changes things a bit, doesn’t it? At first we’re just thinking that maybe it’s some teenager, like countless ones before that find themselves “in trouble”. Or a mother of a large family that just can’t face another round of dirty diapers, the added expense, a more crowded house? But if we give the chimpanzee information earlier, we heighten that dramatic tension by letting the audience start out with the wild and crazy flights of imagination that confession will bring:

“Oh my God, I’m pregnant by a chimpanzee, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think?”

What will my family think indeed? Not only are you a slut, but you’re into really hairy little guys? You’re a prisoner and victim of some bizarre torture? A participant in some weird scientific experiment that has gone horribly wrong?

She has a point, and as I enter the rewrite of my rough draft with these thoughts in mind, I hope to create more dramatic tension by revealing what the reader needs to know at the right time while still maintaining the balance of the story.

Wish me luck, I’m going in!