How to Write: Be Kind to Yourself

partyIn the last few weeks I’ve encountered some setbacks.  Drear Mundania (thank you Piers Anthony for that lovely expression!) has raised its ugly head.  I’m looking at a partially demolished condo.  I’m hiring a lawyer to sue my HOA re: partially demolished condo.  There’s construction outside that rattles my teeth.  My brother just celebrated his birthday, as did my father.  My own birthday was 5 days ago, and we tossed Valentine’s day in there.  Not to mention going to the gym, shopping, a few big snow storms….

With all that, how can I find time to really write?  Oh, I’ve tinkered with paragraphs, gotten in some editing, but really writing?  On the novel?  No.  Not really.

 Neil Gaiman says...

I’m sitting here thinking about all this.  It’s tempting to give myself a real tongue lashing.  You jerk!  You missed your Febno goal by 8,000 words, and most of that was non-fiction!  How do you think anyone will take you seriously when you can’t act like a serious writer??

Tempting, but… no.  Now and then, dear friends, I deserve a break.  So do you.  I’m all for self-discipline.  It’s a requirement of writing, and something usually in short supply for the creative mind.  However, I also believe in giving yourself a break.  Not an eternal break – this needs to get done and it WILL get done.  But keep things in perspective.  You’re ok.  Keep writing and when life gets in the way work to remove the obstacle, then focus again.

Remember, there are times to give yourself a swift kick in the pants, just as there are times to be gentle with yourself.  All things in moderation – don’t go exclusively to one extreme or the other.  Believe in yourself.  You’ll get there.

PS – this post is a good example, actually.  It has eaten itself twice for reasons unknown.  I could yell at myself or just re-post.  Nothing lost, keep perspective, I’ll get there.  🙂

How to write: cutting down exterior distractions

Right now, as I type, there’s a siren going past outside.  My cats are trying to kill each other.  The phone has been ringing all morning (the dentists had to cancel my partner’s appointment – apparently the surgeon quit).  My own surgeon canceled my appointment (again), I’m mulling the benefits of a one-on-one vs. class action lawsuit, and my partner’s alarm clock is going off.

Why-yes-Im-a-bit-stressed.-Why-do-you-ask

Why yes, I’m a bit stressed. Why do you ask?

Yeah, this is what happens when I try to write during the day.

But it brings up a good point.  Writers write because they must.  It’s not a calling, it’s a necessity.  It’s not like I can stop.  However, there are days when I suffer not so much from writer’s block as from serious brain frag (pause here to comfort the little frightened cat who just jumped into my lap).

It’s time to pull out a few tricks, designed to keep Drear Mundania at bay.  Incidentally, these are honest recommendations – I don’t profit from them.

1. Noise cancelling earphones.  This was a gross indulgence – I admit it.  I got an amazing deal on a professional pair of Koss headphones nearly 20 years ago.  I almost cried when they finally died.  It took a long time to settle on a replacement pair.  Ultimately, I decided to go with the Bose QuietComfort 15.  They’re targeted to the business / commuter crowd, designed to block out airplane noise.  But they also block out sirens, cats, doorbells, telephones, televisions alarm clocks etc. etc.  When you don’t have the luxury of solitude, this is the next best thing.  If you want to listen to music in addition to blocking outside noise, the sound quality is amazing!  Just what you’d expect from Bose.

2. Ambient sound – I know most writers have a soundtrack for their stories, which is a grand idea.  But sometimes I prefer a different type of mood.  That’s where the ambient sound generators come in.  My favorite (by a long chalk) is “Relax Melodies” from Ipnos Soft.  I’m so enthusiastic about this product I really should work for the company!

One of several pages of ambient sound choices from Relax Melodies

One of several pages of ambient sound choices from Relax Melodies

The basic package for a computer (vs. a smart phone) comes with nearly 100 different sounds that you can combine, depending on need.  Feeling cheerful?  Let’s combine bird song, children’s laughter and some water sprinklers.  No, I’m feeling drama coming on.  For that one, how about slow rolling waves combined with the sound of a distant fog horn.  Maybe some seagulls.  Wait, I’m writing historical romance!  Punch in a crackling fireplace and a harpsichord.  Wait, it’s set in the winter.  No problem!  Fire, harpsichord and sleet hitting the window.  Got it!  And so on.  The combinations are nearly endless!

In addition to the sounds, Relax Melodies also includes six “binaural beats”.  These are not intended to be heard, you layer them under the sounds you’ve selected.  When listened to in the headphones, the binaurals promote different brain wave activity ranging from “pre-sleep” and “Deep meditation” to “Concentration”.  I’ve found that the “Relaxation” setting is the most productive for writing, but YMMV of course.  It also can be set to a timer if you want to use the program to sleep to.  Nice touch!

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3.  If heavy duty headphones or binaurals aren’t your thing, how about a distraction-free word processor?  Many packages come with a minimalist environment setting to help you focus.  I personally like the “OmmWriter” by Dana.  This software starts with a blank screen, artfully decorated with a scattering of trees in the background.  You have the option of turning on ambient noise such as keyboard clicking, and there are relaxing musical tones such as chimes that can repeat softly if you wish.  It’s inexpensive and the company just upgraded to work well with the latest OS packages.

These ideas won’t keep all your problems at bay, but they can certainly help improve your writing environment!

Writing Journey – HOW many hats does an aspiring author wear?

When I decided to really get serious about my writing, I took several factors into consideration.  The idea for this novel is very timely, and will remain so for at least the next 18-24 months.  If I’m lucky, I should still have a socially relevant book to sell when I’m done pounding keys.  I’ve shown a few scenes to various groups with enthusiastic results.  I also have time to write just now, which can’t be underestimated.  Combine that with signing up for Nanowrimo at just the right time last year, and I gave myself permission to go for it.

That was last October.  Since then I’ve not only focused on my writing, but on learning as much as I can about the publishing industry.  I’m not discouraged by what I’ve learned.  In fact, I’m glad the climb is becoming more defined, less nebulous.  But this is not a climb for the faint of heart.

First: statistics.  As of a few years ago, 47% of American households could be expected to go out and buy a book.  Yes, that means 53% of all American households didn’t.  Of that 47%, 80% bought romance novels.  This leaves 20% to split between JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, and the rest of us.

Wow.

If a first-time author wants to try publishing the old-fashioned way (that is, find an agent, an editor and a publishing house willing to take a chance) the first thing that author must bring to the table is (obviously) a finished product.  Finished, polished, buffed, honed and as perfect as they can get it.  While your first hat must be your “Author” cap, your second hat should be that of “Editor”.  It’s good advice to squash the inner editor during the creative process.  However, that voice is of critical importance during the polishing phase.  The word count for a debut novel should be no more than 50,000 – 80,000. If your team wants a more detailed effort they’ll tell you, but it’s likely they’ll want to hedge their bet.  Short novels have a better chance of catching a new audience, and cost less to publish.

Ok, you’ve written the greatest American novel ever.  You’ve edited it down to a nub of its former self.  Do you have a fan base?  If not, stop.  Go forth, new author.  Obtain fans.  In addition to being a fantastic writer and a whiz bang editor, the modern novelist must also excel in marketing.  Beat the bushes.  Network like mad.  Bring at least 1,000 willing and able readers with you to the negotiating table or go home.

I will NOT be intimidated! (she says, eyeing the growing pile of hats)

Right!  You’ve written the novel, you’ve polished your baby, you’ve whipped up a rabid fan base.  You’re good to go, right?  Park that right now, aspiring author!  Get measured for hats #4 & 5, movie producer.

Isn’t this putting the cart slightly before the horse?  No, not really.  There’s two ways to employ your inner director/producer/casting agent, both will serve you well.  The first really is in the form of a film.  I remember one of my favorite Ian McKellen quotes.  Coming off Lord of the Rings, moving into X-men, he was asked what it was like jumping back and forth between them.  He didn’t miss a beat.  “Darling,” he replied with a smile, “one can never have too many franchises!”  Likewise, you can never go wrong anticipating multiple markets for your material.  You’ve got a great story.  Now you’re trying to sell it.  You’ve got the readership, no problem.  But if you can throw in a potential movie, it may be one more reason to move forward to publication.  Are you supposed to contact studios before publishers?  No.  But if your project lends itself well to multiple mediums, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

unitThe second way is a “book trailer”.  I was introduced to this concept several months ago while considering “The Unit”, by Ninni Holmqvist.  It’s an intriguing dystopian novel on the subject of “disposable humans”.   As I mulled over the description, I saw a link asking me to “View the Trailer”.  What, it’s being made into a movie already?  No.  As I quickly discovered, it was a 2 minute teaser for the book itself.

According to this happily straightforward article featured in the “ProActive Writer Blog”, a book trailer is a must-have for the self-published writer.  I agree, but I’d expand that to “every single author engaged in the art of self-promotion”.  In other words, all of us.  While books are designed to appeal to a readership, a book trailer works quickly on an emotional level to promote a concept.  It also helps boost the idea that yes, your book will easily adapt to the silver screen if (when!) the time comes.

Writers are creative, or we couldn’t do this at all.  Shepherding your first project from concept to sale will require quite a bit of mental gymnastics.  JK Rowling did it.  Suzanne Collins handled it.  Stephan King makes it look easy.  I can do it!

Can you?  (the correct answer is HECK YEAH!!)

How to Write: Are there rules to good writing?

I like io9.com.  It’s a strange little website covering geeky stuff that appeals to my inner nerd.  But I just read something in their “writing advice” column that had me gnashing my teeth.   “What it Means When Someone Tries to Tell You THE Rules of Good Writing“.  This is an informal follow-up to a previous article, “10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break”

The ideas behind them both is that hard and fast rules, when applied to the creative process, are more like guidelines.  Essentially, go with whatever works for you, but try to be consistent.  Then they offer an example of an occasion when one of their suggestions actually worked.  At this point I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker; “Just because you’re misunderstood does not make you an artist”.

I appreciate the well intended “accept yourself for who you are” movement.  And I do agree that ironclad laws should not be strictly applied to creative expression.  There is a strong need for individual expression, otherwise “creative” wouldn’t be in the description.  But there’s what works, and what doesn’t.  If your goal is to write for public consumption you need a solid foundation in the mechanics of the written word, along with the construction of longer works.  After you’ve got that down. then start branching out into your own unique style.

What annoys me so much about articles like this is the mixed message it sends out.  Unless a writer is completely delusional, they know when something isn’t working.  It’s the “something” that confuses so many.  They know what they want to say, but how do you get to that point?  According to the self-acceptance movement, you don’t.  You create in whatever manner you see fit, it’s up to the public to accept your genius for what it is.  If they don’t the problem is with them, not you.

Really no.  There is such a thing as bad writing.  And yes, there are some excellent guidelines to follow.  I traditionally recommend “On Writing” by Stephen King as my favorite how-to book.  King is wildly popular with a broad swath of the public – his credit is good.  Also, he offers solid information without making the reader feel like a moron.

Let’s look at examples.  We’ll start with bad.  The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest seeking out the worst writing of the year (in a single sentence).  It’s named after the guy who really did begin his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”.  Here’s the whole passage, from the novel “Paul Clifford”:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” –Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

This is classic “purple prose”.  Why say it in one word when fourteen will do?  I can already hear the protests going out – Yes.  It works sometimes.  Two examples off the top of my head are “The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice, and any line written by Quentin Tarantino for a Christoph Waltz character.  But these are devices.  They should not to be used on a regular basis.  Anne uses the device to draw a reader into a dreamy world of magic, where life moves at a different, slower pace.  Intended as a seduction, it works only occasionally.  Most readers will tell you it’s cool for a while, then they start skipping pages (entire pages!) of descriptive passages.  Tarantino, meanwhile, balances the verbose Waltz characters with a taciturn counterpart, King Shultz with Django Freeman, Hans Landa first with Perrier LaPadite, then with Shosanna Dreyfus.

Let’s stay with Stephen King for a great example of an opening sequence. This is the first page of “The Long Walk”.  One of his infamous “Bachman Books”, he wrote under a pen name to see if he could appeal to an audience when they didn’t know who he was.

***

An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.  One of the guards, an expressionless young man in a khaki uniform and a Sam Browne belt, asked to see the blue plastic ID card.  The boy in the back seat handed it to his mother.  His mother handed it to the guard.  The guard took it to a computer terminal that looked strange and out of place in the rural stillness.  The computer terminal ate the card and flashed this on its screen:

GARRATY RAMOND DAVIS

RD 1 PAWNAL MAINE

ANDROSCOGGIN COUNTY

ID NUMBER 49-801-89

OK-OK-OK

The guard punched another button and all of this disappeared, leaving the terminal screen smooth and green and blank again.  He waved them forward.

“Don’t they give the card back?” Mrs. Garraty asked.  “Don’t they–”

“No, Mom,” Garraty said patiently.

“Well, I don’t like it,” she said, pulling forward into an empty space.  She had been saying it ever since they set out in the dark of two in the morning.  She had been moaning it, actually.

“Don’t worry,” he said without hearing himself.  He was occupied with looking and with his own confusion of anticipation and fear.  He was out of the car almost before the engine’s last asthmatic wheeze – a tall, well-built boy wearing a faded army fatigue jacket against the eight o’clock spring chill.

His mother was also tall, but too thin.  Her breasts were almost nonexistent: token nubs.  Her eyes were wandering and unsure, somehow shocked.  Her face was an invalid’s face.  Her iron-colored hair had gone awry under the complication of clips that was supposed to hold it in place.  Her dress hung badly on her body as if she had recently lost a lot of weight.

“Ray,” she said in that whispery conspirator’s voice that he had come to dread.  “Ray, listen–”

***

King makes the most of his 320 words. His use of simile quickly draws his reader into a fantastical situation, by comparing it to the ordinary.  Description of the objects around them go far to describe both Ray and his mother – her dress hangs off of her, the car is old and in need of repair.  By associating the word “asthmatic ” with the engine he puts in a clever twist.  While it’s possible for rich people to have asthma, it’s typically associated with the poor.  He’s implying not only a broken car but reinforcing an economic assumption about his character.

The guard is given next to no description.  He’s young and has no expression.  He does not judge.  But note Ray’s mother – her panic when he didn’t give the card back.  Her reaction establishes everything we need to know about the soldier.  He is part of the machine they find themselves trapped in.  They don’t attempt to speak to him directly – this telegraphs to the reader there’s no point.  He is AUTHORITY.

What do we know about Ray? It is implied he’s in the back seat because he’s too young to drive.  And yet in two sentences King established that the mother is in need of reassurance, the child must be patient with her.  This tells you a great deal not only about both characters, but about the situation as a whole.

The selection concludes with Ray’s mother whispering frantically to him.  At this point the reader should really want to know more.  Why is she whispering?  Why does he dread it?  What the heck is going on?  Already King is building a cage for his characters, and by extension his readers.  When she hunches in, the conspirator’s voice, it begins to close in.

Good writers are normally voracious readers.  When you see something good, stop.  Go back.  Read it again.  Start taking it apart.  Why did this work for you?  At the same time don’t avoid bad writing.  Seek it out.  Start at a page like The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Read over the entries.  Check out the comments.  Why don’t they work?

There may not be ironclad rules for creative expression, but don’t be lulled into the idea that it’s “anything goes”, or even that there are just casual guidelines.  Even Picasso had to learn the basics first.

The Dreaded Plot Plink

Cover copy“75 Miles to Montauk” is a supernatural thriller.  It has a lot of adventure, a good bit of action, some awesome characters and a few wrong turns at Albuquerque.  I love this story and I devoted most of my “National Novel Writing Month” experience to it last year.

During Nanowrimo time is golden.  The goal is to write just under 1,700 words per day, which requires a steady pace.  If I researched something I thought it was really important, like the critical scene in a Vegas nightclub where three of my characters meet for the first time.  It put me a day behind schedule but the information I found was critical.

There’s only one problem.  There is no nightclub scene in my book.  The characters only mention it in passing.  So what happened?

It was consumed by the dreaded plot plink.

Plink: 1. a short, sharp metallic sound made by plucking a musical instrument. 2. The sound of a bullet striking metal. 3. To shoot things at random. See: Boing.

(this is what a plink sounds like)

I know writers who outline their novels very carefully.  Like a storyboard for a move, each scene is carefully detailed so that they never lose focus during the actual writing process.  I also know writers who never outline anything.  They adopt a “seat of the pants” approach and end up wherever the muse takes them.

I’m somewhere in the middle.  I have a good idea of what I want to accomplish, and I usually do a ton of research to get me there.  But the story itself has room to grow and change as needed without the constraints of a rigid outline.  I adopted this style after learning the truth – good plots always plink.

Here’s a simple example.  In a scene as I originally envisioned it, my characters decide the object of their desire is being held on a top secret military base.  They break onto the base and they’re arrested.  During the following interrogation one of my characters argues passionately with the authority figure in charge, convincing him to join forces to search for this valuable thing.

As I started writing I listened to my characters.  One of them, a middle aged lady, expressed doubts about the wisdom of this plan.  When the idea of carrying a gun was mentioned she flatly refused.  When they were arrested she lost her temper (very rare for her, as she’s a nurturing type) and scolded her companions.  Meanwhile the MPs who detained them gave them a stern talking to about taking Close Encounters of the Third Kind too seriously, then let them go with directions on how to find Roswell, New Mexico.

Believe me, that’s the better scene.   By far.  In fact, I laugh every time I read it – it’s one of my favorites.  Had I rigidly held to the original idea, several of the actions would have been out of character for my team, and lacking in the humor I try to toss in as often as possible.  By going with the plink I lost the device of military back up, but I gained a much stronger group.  Also, I was forced to abandon the intended location of my hidden object.  After another good bit of research I found a new location, not guarded by anyone, and it’s a really awesome site.  It’ll film beautifully if someone decides to make the movie.  *G*

Writers, trust your instincts at the start.  But trust your material through the process.  Don’t force your will onto a scene if it’s just not flowing.  Listen to your characters and if a plink happens, write it!  You may not end up where you were originally going, but it’s likely you’ll end up somewhere much more interesting.

How to write: The Importance of Music

My friends send around some of the silliest things on Facebook.  Just yesterday I saw an in-depth conversation circulating about the “Top 20 Useless Superpowers” (I have to admit – I thought “Communicating with fruit” was kind of cool).  I was bored and I started thinking about it, but I didn’t have any real ideas.  As I tinkered I had my music set on “random”.  The next song in the cue was “Come Together”, the cover version sung by Joe Cocker on the “Across the Universe” soundtrack.

Martin Luther in Across the Universe

At once I saw a man walking down a dark street.  Yes, it was in the movie actually, Jo-Jo’s spectacular arrival to New York.  But I took it further. Jo-Jo may have been a lost soul but not for long.  His music led him home.

Having just come to the city, what does my character do?  Unlike the movie, my character is on the outside looking in, frustrated, with no purpose.  No job.  No direction.  He’s been on auto-pilot for so long and this is where his journey led him – a bus station in New York.  Are you kidding?  He’s never been so alone.

By the time I finished writing the scene you could almost smell the alley as he walked.  He hunched against the cold out of habit, even though the day was unseasonably warm.  Rats scampered to the sides, similar to the big wharf rats found in New Orleans.  They were the first friendly things he saw.  They lifted his spirits a bit and he wished he had a snack for them.  Hell, at least they were familiar.  “Hold him in his armchair you can feel his disease…”

I still don’t have a good answer for the useless superpower, but Evan is now in New York.

When I’m writing, the difference between complete dreck and a vivid, living scene is always the music.  Though my readers will never hear it, they’ll know immediately if music isn’t playing when I write.  The words are flat, boring, rather pointless.  A shopping list has more purpose.

Let’s take another song.  This one was unexpected.  I was sitting at my desk, again uninspired.  It was a pretty day, and I was really stuck.  My older female character was in a real mood, the others were looking to her for answers, and I had none to give her to give them.

Suddenly, without warning (there’s good old “random play” again) the Rolling Stones started.  I’m a late convert to the Stones, being a loyal Beatles fan since before I could walk.  But when this song started… SNAP.  I looked up, no longer in my office.  I was in Caden’s living room.  A living room anyway.  Maybe a hotel.  And she was watching a pendulum swing back and forth….zing zinga zing zinga…

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I backed the song up and listened again.  Zing zinga zing zinga zing zinga zing….

Caden looked around the room.  She knew what they had to do.  She knew they wouldn’t like it.  She knew…  “We go back.”

Zing zinga zing zinga… the pendulum swung and twisted to the tune, and “Gimme Shelter” just wrote a critical scene in my book.

Thanks Mick.  Seriously man, I own you one.  That was tough.

The song that came on after “Gimme Shelter” was “Exit Music (for a film)” by Radiohead.  *G*  Want to take a stab which scene I wrote to that one?

It’s always said that if you want to write, you must read.  That’s no joke.  If you’re not an avid reader you’ll never be a good writer.  But to take it to the next level, to give it that “wow, how did you do that?” spark, there’s gotta be music.

Across+the+Universe+AcrossTheUniverseDeluxeEditionBTW, if you’ve never seen “Across the Universe” go see it.  Keep your ears out for “Come Together”.  It’s flipping amazing, but then again so is the whole movie.  Wow Julie.  Nice job!