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.

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Readers are like Helen Keller

 See that little girl on the left? That’s Helen Keller, the famous deaf and blind woman who   learned to read and speak and went on to do Great Things, with the help of her teacher, the woman on the right, Anne Sullivan.

Now, you may ask yourself, what in tarnation does this have to do with writing? I’m so glad you asked. Read the paragraph above again and then think about it for a moment. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, in case there are some of you still scratching your heads, I will elaborate. Because if someone (my instructor and author-hero Jill Ciment) hadn’t explained it like this, I’d have never come up with the idea on my own.

You see, our readers are like little Miss Helen Keller. In the dark, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, understanding nothing, until we, in the role of Anne Sullivan, show them the way by the words we choose to write. Now I’m not saying that my stories are going to inspire someone to go out and be a great philanthropist, I’m happy if someone just enjoys what I’ve written and has a few hours pleasant distraction. But, unless I tell that blind, deaf reader what is going on in my story, how are they supposed to know?

I know, I’ve just been talking about streamlining and making sure my prose is not too wordy, but there’s a difference between describing a scene so that someone understands what’s happening and where the characters are, and a ‘filmed version’ of what’s going on. I am all too often guilty of describing the setting in great detail. I have to remember to think like I might if I were leading Helen Keller by the hand. Tell the important things, right off the bat, so the reader can get a handle on the action instead of being bewildered by the details.

Think of yourself as a diver on a diving board. You know that water is cold, but jumping in is the only way to tell the story. Bouncing on the end of the diving board doesn’t get that story told any faster or easier, it just adds extra information that the reader  really doesn’t need.

So, jump in already!

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!

Sharing

One of the best things to ever happen to my writing is the viewpoints of other readers. It’s hell to let go and let someone else read it for the first time, but I have come to discover how much I enjoy the comments from other writers. Even if they pick it apart, word by word, I learn something from it. Now, someone just saying “It sucks!” without offering their reasons as to why they believe so doesn’t cut it. Constructive criticism is the foundation for improving my writing. I may produce something I think is brilliant, I post it over at the Lit Forum or wherever, and I’ll sudden;y realize I have way too many adverbs in it. Or I have plot holes big enough to back a truck through. Readers can find these things, point them out and suggest new ways of appraching the idea. One scene with Valerie and Daniel underwent a massive transformation. The basic premise remained the same; a bad encounter with the ex-husband, but it ended up as something so much more powerful and strong at the end. It also afforded Daniel the opportunity to be a hero for Valerie, whereas he wasn’t so much in the first few drafts.

My advice? Find an online forum that you like. Compuserve has a writer’s forum that is open to anyone and there are lots of fantastic writers there who are so helpful and happy to answer questions. Yahoo has lots of groups dedicated to writing, some very structured, some not as much. Rarely have I run across anyplace where someone is hurtful or mean in their commentary; such behavior is not tolerated. If you post someplace looking for help, be prepared to offer such help in return. Reading someone else’s work and commenting, expertise in a subject, there are lots of ways to contribute to the cause. Your writing will grow and improve because of it.

Alternately, many community colleges offer adult education classes that often include creative writing instruction. Sharing my work in person was harder for me, but it still as helpful and supportive; you may prefer the face-to-face interaction. These classes are usually short and aren’t overly expensive; some are even online.

Really, I swear it works.