Writers’ Olympics

stadiumSilk’s Post #160 — It’s the middle of the summer, the silly season. All eyes are glued to the Olympics, a welcome relief from political campaigns. The days are hot (at least here on the left coast), the beer is cold, the burgers are on the barbie, and a bit of light-hearted blogging is in order.

Every four years the Summer Olympics reminds the world what dreams, discipline and dedication can get you. Oh, and dollars – did I forget to mention dollars?

As the spectacle of the Games gets ever more entertainingly (even gaudily) ambitious, as the athletic clothing and gear gets slicker (thanks to sponsors), and as the monumental task of hosting this behemoth of a show gets more daunting (thanks Brazil, and good luck with your post-games hangover), the soul of the Olympics endures at the very simplest level, the level where all the rah-rah and glitz doesn’t count.

At its heart, what counts is the stories of the hopeful young competitors. They rock.

Maybe others tune in to indulge their fan patriotism, or to vicariously party on. For me, the draw is the inspiring – sometimes unnervingly perfectionistic – display of physical, mental and emotional grit played out at every sports venue. People putting themselves on the line, holding nothing back, totally exposed to an audience of millions.

The degree of dedication in Olympic athletes is absolutely stunning. There are few other human endeavours, if any, that demand so much, and reward the majority of participants with nothing but personal satisfaction. These may be called games, but they are not play.

At the same time, the Olympics are at the pinnacle of a worldwide sports development system that produces the most superb athletes in history, and they keep getting better. Every Games sees new records set and a higher level of performance achieved.

Ask yourself: in what other fields are human beings progressively getting better at what they do, eclipsing the achievements of their progenitors? Go ahead. Take your time. Dah da dum de dum. No rush. I’m sure you’ll think of something people do better now than they ever have before. People, mind you. Individuals. No ideas yet?

Okay, time’s up. If you did think of something, I’ll bet you the Brooklyn Bridge that it’s some form of technological (or maybe social) progress rather than individual human achievement.

Oh, sure, there are constant advances in technology, and it’s easy to confuse an improvement in the performance of things with an improvement in the performance of people. After all, it’s people who invent these newfangled things. But, sorry, no. The people who invented computers and air conditioning and charter schools and AR-15 rifles and Facebook were very clever, but they weren’t smarter than Aristotle or Galileo or Newton or Tesla or Einstein.

But imagine applying the whole Olympic idea to other kinds of endeavour … writing for instance. Could writers, through lifelong training and obsessive striving, reach literary achievements never before imagined? God knows most of us don’t do nearly enough obsessive striving or disciplined training on our own. No wonder many writers find themselves stumbling over everyday hurdles.

(Oh, I can’t commit to writing 2,000 words a day, I … have a job, have a family, have a vacation coming up, have a headache. So do Olympic athletes. See what I mean?)

Yes, I think this is just what we all need. An Olympic system for developing awesome writers. We need to get into training, people. No more butts on the couch. Get up and put those butts to work, uh, in a chair. Build those vocabulary muscles. Work on your plot spins and twists. And stick those landings at the end.

My modest proposal is to develop an Olympic style system to measure writing performance, because, well you know, what gets measured gets done or something like that. Just for starters, here are some top-of-my-head suggestions for events in the Writers’ Olympics. Please feel free to add your own!

Speedwriting Events
This is a series of sprint and long-distance race events in which writers must sit in a room full of desks and produce a fixed number of words – for example, a 100 word sprint, a 5,000 word marathon, and so on. Points for speed are then adjusted by making deductions for grammatical and syntax errors, as judged by editors. Further deductions are also made for quality deficits, as judged by critics. Note: the writing might be fast, but the judging will be slow, just as in real life.

Vocabulary Weightlifting Events
Giving new meaning to “weighing your words,” these events challenge writers to lift the efficiency and creativity of their work through the power of language. Various exercises, such as short fiction, poetry and essay, are judged on technical points and artistic merit. Originality earns extra credits, but competitors who push too far will receive gibberish deductions.

Storynastics
Writers perform plotting routines in a variety of fiction genres, such as mystery/suspense, thriller, romance, action and sci-fi/fantasy, meeting strict requirements for inclusion of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Technical points are awarded for story structure, plot twists, pacing, reversals and climax. Points for artistic merit are given for originality; story flow; balance of description, action and dialogue; and characters. Deductions are made for awkward transitions, intrusive backstory and unresolved subplots.

Rewrite Hurdles
First draft short fiction manuscripts are submitted in time trials, then edited by an eliminations judging team, with each minor edit deducting one point off a perfect score of 100, and each major edit deducting 5 points. The 10 top-scoring writers continue on to the finals, where they do a time-limited, blind rewrite, and are ranked by their ability to anticipate and clear the original editorial hurdles assessed by the judges, earning points for every correction of an identified fault. This is not only a deadline competition, but also a mind-reading contest.

Unpublished (and even published) writers often bemoan the difficulty of getting published, getting recognized, breaking through, dealing with the emotional trauma of rejection slips. Yes, it’s daunting. And it does sometimes seem like a lottery. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking this way.

But, seriously, it’s a highly competitive field, just like sports. How many of us can truly say we put the time into training and learning, do the grinding work of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, build up our strengths and relentlessly work on our flaws the way Olympians do? How much do we sacrifice in anonymity for our craft? What mental toughness do we cultivate to give ourselves the resilience needed to face inevitable failures and rejections – and then carry on anyway?

So, friends and writers, the next time you find yourself struggling with this ambitious goal of writing – a goal you chose for yourself – try thinking a bit more like an Olympic hopeful.

The part-timers, the short-cutters and the half-hearted are – let’s face it – probably not going to get to the big show. They can still enjoy writing recreationally, kind of like the way I enjoy the odd sailboat race. It’s all good. Even if an expectations adjustment may be required.

But really big success – like becoming a bestseller in a highly competitive marketplace – takes really big effort. “Overnight success” is mythical. Yet hard work does pay off: we’re watching it on our screens in Rio right now. Even for the also-rans, pride in the achievement of getting to the elite level of Olympic sports is the reward of a lifetime.

And here’s the good news for writers: in Olympic competitions, there are no do-overs. But in writing, there are. And there’s no age limit.

What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”

Hugs!

 

Reclamation of dreams

abandoned-farmhouse

Silk’s Post #153 — I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places, attracted to the empty stage sets of lives now relocated, or finished. I wonder whether those lives were recorded somewhere, whether they’re recalled by someone, or whether they’re irretrievably lost to memory.

But I’ve never stepped into an abandoned place where the dreams that once filled it did not come instantly to life, leftover shreds of hope and intent that were once the substance of lives that mattered. Dreams echo. The imagination leaps ahead, visualizing rooms full of furnishings and people, creating scenarios. The heart aches with the sorrow of abandonment, the weight of time. But simultaneously, it longs to know the story whose traces have been left behind. Who were these people? What happened to them?

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that, lately, it has been feeling, well, a bit abandoned. Once animated by four or five posts every week, it now sometimes has only one or two. In some recent weeks, it has been a room empty of conversation.

And so, are the 5 Writers moving out? Moving on? Deserting our writing lives and taking up residence in some other other space, to live some other life and pursue some other truth? Honestly, I don’t know the answer, and it will likely be a different answer for each of us.

But here’s what I do know: As I walk through the 5writers5novels5months blogspace, I’m haunted by the richness and vibrancy of our dreams, our hopes and our intents. And I long not only to foresee our story, but to create it.

Of course, the only stories I can create are my own: both my reality and my fiction. Because I have three books, manuscripts that literally sit within the reach of my hand right now, that I have all but abandoned.

One is finished in first draft: my firstborn. It’s the one closest to my heart because it’s the most personal, set on the island I call home. It’s also the one with a plot structure so flawed it will need multiple surgeries to bring it to life, and even then could still turn out to be a Frankenstein of a book.

One was my entry in the original crazy 5writers challenge starting in September 2012: my attempt at a relatively formulaic genre book. Like a horrible mother, I abandoned it halfway through, bored with a plot arc that failed to matter enough to me. It will need an infusion of consequence, something to make me care about finishing it.

One is the book I’ve been working on since 2014, but although it’s a theme-driven story that I do really care about, I have made pathetically little progress. It needs nothing more than an author with the will to write write write. A writer with the burning desire to know the story.

The whole idea of abandonment touches deep emotions. When I chose this topic for my post, I wandered the net looking for abandonment definitions and references, and found them to be universally distressing and depressing. It’s the sad, broken face of failed dreams, the antithesis of the fresh start.

Now, simple logic and emotional intelligence would dictate that the road back to productivity for a blocked writer really needs to begin with a fresh start.

Of course! That’s the ticket! It sounds like much, much more fun than revisiting abandoned manuscripts, cobwebbed with frustrations, guilt and regrets. Wind up the run-down clock once again! Re-infuse my writing life – both novel and blog – with a new sense of purpose and commitment! Get excited about a brand new story, one with endless possibilities and – as yet – no flaws, troubles or broken promises to drag me down!

But that’s not what I’m going to do. You probably already guessed that.

I feel drawn back to that which I’ve abandoned. I have an ache to reclaim those dreams, to re-animate the characters I gave birth to, and to nurture them to maturity. I want to rediscover the soul and the hopes and the naive confidence of the neophyte novelist I was six or seven years ago, when I felt like I was bursting with creative energy.

I want to re-engage the writer I was, back when writing was what mattered most to me, was at the centre of my self-identity. When it was a mission, a seemingly achievable mission. Before I realized how hard it would be to do such a thing really well – as well as I demanded of myself. Before I discovered how challenging it would be to sustain my enthusiasm over the long arcs of time required to finish novels that had some hope of getting published. Before I understood the true costs and disciplines of the writing life.

I’m a different writer now. Better, but less idealistic. I’m like a middle-aged woman returning to a childhood home after the family is all gone, after experiencing the successes, failures, joys and regrets that life inevitably delivers. And I know that reclamation of those earlier dreams will be a process of putting past hopes and present reality side-by-side and accepting the obvious differences. And moving on from there.

I have yet to decide which of my three books to embrace again, but I sense that doesn’t matter as much as how I step back into my own writing life and embrace my dreams again, after disappointing myself by abandoning them.

The important decision, though, has been made. For me, giving up is not an option.

The school of real life

real-life-school

Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.

 

 

The magic of fear in writing

Karalee’s Post #132

fearI was musing the other day, thinking about all the emotions and sensations people go through during their lives. Most of us at some point have felt excitement, joy, peace, terror, pain, sadness, ecstasy, fear, happiness, contentment, anxiety, cold, hot, restless, panicked, relaxed, blissful, etc.

Then, in my writer’s way, I wondered  what underlies all the bad feelings and what can change all the good ones into bad ones. I realized that the common denominator is FEAR.

The definition of fear is:  an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The magic of this definition for writers is the word belief.

Think about that. We can make our characters believe anything we want. We create their lives from inception to death, building their belief system through their experiences, and those experiences can trigger reactions and behaviors throughout their lives.

Why is fear so magical? Fear is a great motivator for action to get away from the danger that is likely to cause pain or threaten the character. The fear can be up front and physical like getting run over by a truck, or a swarm of bees heading your way. Fear can also be perceived in one’s mind. Now that’s magical. It’s also endless in the scenarios that can be conjured by the hand of a writer. Inside one’s mind is where psychological manifestations blossom, where beliefs flourish whether they are true or false.

For example, if a character was bitten by a dog when he was a child, he may panic when he hears a dog bark even if the dog is locked inside and can’t harm him. Even more powerful, the character could panic at the mere thought of a dog being close by even if there is no dog at all. The truth here is that there is no danger at all, but the character can still be in a state of fear.

Fear is a great tension builder. It’s the monster under the bed, the darkness hiding all the bad things in the night, it’s one’s imagination running terrifyingly free in one’s mind. Its a veritable treasure chest for a writer to pull from.

Does happiness or excitement compel characters to flee, or murder, or do other criminal acts? Or is it the fear of losing someone you love that causes you to murder the lover? It certainly isn’t in the moment of happiness that characters do bad things.

I can’t think of another emotion that’s as strong and compelling as fear to make characters engage in extreme actions to get away from danger or the threat of danger whether it’s real or perceived.

Can you?

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Perspective Photos:

cypress snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird in snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

Is writing child’s play?

playtime

Silk’s Post #151 — I found myself in a playful mood at the keyboard the other day, and suddenly two unbidden questions formed just above my head, like cartoon balloons.

The first was: Why don’t I feel like this more often? The other was: What’s the difference, really, between work and play?

I quickly concluded the first question would be difficult to answer, probably requiring some couch time with a mental health professional. (As it turns out, I now believe I was overly pessimistic about finding the answer, and overly self-centred in thinking my playfulness deficit and longing for more of it is at all extraordinary – but more on that later.)

On the question of the distinction between work and play, I expected to easily find received wisdom with a few clicks. Perhaps there would not be total consensus, but surely such an elemental question would have been deliberately examined thoroughly enough to have been distilled into two or three theoretical camps. Maximum.

But it was not as easy as that.

I found myself at a fork in the road, where the sign marked “play” pointed one way, and the one marked “work” pointed the other. A bit of cyber hiking revealed a lightly explored wilderness between the two camps. It seems “play” occupies a space exclusively populated by children, except in special multi-generational compounds designed for structured activities like drama, sports, or music. On the other hand, the “work” zone is, more or less, an adult gated community.

So, is that the answer, then? Play is for children and work is for adults? This seems very wrong to me. But, as a writer who has been struggling with the balance between the regimented discipline of work and the creative anarchy of imagination, the question feels important. Existential, maybe. It begs a more satisfying answer.

I mean, come on. Two little four-letter words we use every day. You can’t tell me we don’t objectively know what we mean when we say “work” or “play”.

But if there’s a simple definition about the difference between them (and their relationship to each other), I didn’t find it. Is work-play a continuum with varying degrees of combination, like a mixing tap for hot and cold water? Is there one (or more) key differentiator that separates work and play, some litmus test? Is play just practice, a learning strategy, a training ground for a life of work? Is the experience of work or play entirely subjective, all about attitude, all in the eye of the beholder?

There are some enlightened professionals around who are broadening their horizons regarding play – looking beyond childhood development, where it is well-recognized as critically important to development of physical, social, mental, emotional, moral and creative skills. There does appear to be dawning recognition of play as a vital, lifelong companion to work, perhaps in response to the age-old lament “youth is wasted on the young.”

Wouldn’t adults benefit equally from experiencing this effect of play, described in a pamphlet from Play Wales, a national organization for children’s play? …

Play is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish; when we play we are freed to be inventive and creative. In play, everything is possible with reality often disregarded and imagination and free-flow thinking taking precedence.

To me, this sounds like the ideal state of mind for a writer. An interesting series of articles by Dr. Peter Gray in Psychology Today (check out “The Value of Play”) suggests these five attributes of play (paraphrased from Gray):

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit – Play is an expression of freedom. We do it because we want to, not because we have to (or because someone is making us do it).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends – What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions (i.e., meeting a goal, solving a problem, earning a reward), while in play this is reversed: we engage in play primarily for its own sake, even though there may be intrinsic goals within the play activity itself. The corollary (an important one when play is applied to creative pursuits like writing) is that fear of failure is absent or diminished.

Play is guided by mental rules – While play is a freely chosen activity, it is not without shape and form; self-imposed rules are conceived to guide and stimulate choices, problem solving, actions, imagination and (in social play) shared understanding – all of which imbue play with satisfying (but not threatening) challenges.

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality – Play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real; it is a work of imagination – a “let’s pretend” fantasy – like a novel that is based on, reflects and experiments with reality, but is fictional.

Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind – Because play demands our active engagement and creativity – but emphasizes process rather than outcome – it challenges and stimulates us in a low-stress manner; play is only possible when we fully focus on the “here and now” without being constantly distracted by the past and future (i.e. goal-oriented pressure to perform, which is a creativity killer).

Gray does note that children are more capable of engaging in pure, 100 percent play than adults, citing his four-year-old son’s ability to stay completely in-character as Superman for days at a time. He suggests that adults more often experience some mix of play (imaginative fantasy) and work (disciplined reality), depending on their activity and attitude. He estimated his work-to-play ratio in writing his blog post as 20/80 – obviously a man who loves to write.

In fact, 20/80 is my new personal goal for work-to-play ratio when I’m writing!

In my December post, 5 more overlooked emotions, I suggested playfulness as an “emotion” to spice up your characters:

This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people … So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

What I discovered when I searched for insights into adult play was that all the good quotes were, without exception, attributed to creative people. Aha! Yet another piece of evidence that life imitates art. For your amusement and contemplation, here are some of the best:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) — Mark Twain

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” — G. K. Chesterton

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” — Charles E. Schaefer

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” — John Cleese

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” — William Saroyan

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan W. Watts

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

So, I think I have my answers – or perhaps I should say I’ve found the inspiration I was looking for …

Why don’t I feel playful more often? As with most people whose youth is behind them, life has conspired to turn me into a work-headed adult. Goal-oriented. Realistic. Mostly serious. In the course of “making something of myself” over the decades, I’ve been taught to associate play with relaxation and recreation, not accomplishment and creation. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, as it gets hard-wired in your brain. Yet in the past few years since I’ve been trying to become a writer, I’ve (finally) gained a different perspective.

If I want to write, I need to learn to play again. Focus on the game instead of always the goal. Let fantasy push reality aside sometimes. Make fun of being serious and get serious about making fun. Is this not the most congenial prescription ever? As Br’er Rabbit cried so eloquently, “Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”

What’s the difference, really, between work and play?  The difference between work and play seems to come down to the attitude and perspective you bring to what you do. If you’re fortunate enough to have choices, and especially if you’re creatively inclined, you can turn a good chunk of your life into a playground. How play relates to writing is so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t really “get it” automatically, but had to pursue the concept and process it in my analytical left brain before the epiphany came.

But even mundane or stressful tasks with seemingly limited opportunities for fun or creativity can be re-cast by a play-full mind. Some lucky people can turn anything into play. Peeling potatoes. Making sales pitches. Caring for a patient. Painting a house. I’m convinced of that now. And it’s an incredibly empowering revelation. Probably should be a religion. Maybe I’ll start one.

 


Note to readers:  Where’s the 5/5/5 box score? It’s a new year and a fresh start, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m just getting some traction on my writing practice again. Getting back up to speed didn’t magically happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. My hope is to re-start my weekly progress reports with my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Feel your own emotions

Karalee’s Post #131

fear quote

I’m one of those non-resolution type of people, telling myself that most people don’t follow through and I don’t want to be one of “those.”

Goals though, are another breed. They are the GPS to success, the voice from the black box guiding you along your chosen path to the end point to where “you have arrived.” Truth told, goals are the fraternal twin to resolutions.

So what do resolution avoidance and goal setting have to do with feeling my emotions? Both push me outside of my comfort zone where suddenly the unknown creeps in. What if this happens? or that? or I don’t get it done on schedule? or at all?

The above quote from Steven King says it all.

I realize that my emotions around goal setting tend to be negative rather than positive. They are fear based. Why? Goals should be something I want to achieve, right? They should excite me and push me to do things I don’t normally do to get what I haven’t yet gotten.

Ha! Does this sound like what writers try to get their characters to do?

With this in mind, I stopped and let myself feel the fear behind the goals that I’ve set for myself this year. I’ve never consciously done this before and it’s an interesting experience you may want to try as well. I believe it could help us writers be more in tune with what’s behind our character’s emotions. We could do this with other reactions we have too, and unravel the life experiences that give rise to the way we react whether happy, sad, angry, feeling vulnerable or distrusting, loving, hateful, etc.

For now though, I’m looking at where my fears may be coming from.

  1. Fear of success. This sounds odd to me, but it comes from being put down in childhood for liking school and excelling at it. Country kids are “supposed” to hate school.
  2. Fear of failure. This is a dichotomy when I fear success and failure! To me failure is more self-imposed, like I could have, should have, but didn’t. This is true when I don’t tell anyone my goals, then the only one that knows is me. If I do tell others and fail, then it evokes shame which means I am concerned about how others perceive me. Intellectually I know that what others think shouldn’t matter, but again, one’s past experiences builds these reactions.
  3. Fear of certain activities, like answering the phone and opening mail. Now that’s bizarre when I let that one sink in. These are frequent activities I have to do for my work and I do have an aversion to them, but I have never really let the reasons come to light. When I do, I know I react like this because of the number of times that bad news has come to me through these avenues. It leaves me dreading the “call” instead of dancing to the phone when it rings (or my cell phone) in anticipation of winning the lottery or simply talking to a friend.
  4. Fear of “NO.” In direct sales this is a biggy since 80% of people say no! As children, parent’s ‘no’s” far exceed their “yes’s” and “no” has a direct connection to not being able to do what you want to do. I’ve worked hard this year to not take no’s personally, and the difference it’s made in my life in general has given me freedom to relax and be myself. Letting my experience of no’s be emotionally neutral rather than negative has given me more peace than I ever imagine.

Going through this exercise and really paying attention to why I react and feel deep-seated emotions in certain situations has opened my awareness to also do this with characters in my stories. Backstories are huge in developing characters and to feel the why behind how we make our characters react emotionally will help create more authentic characters.

Giving opposite reactions to what one would expect can also be done this way when you understand the why’s in the character’s history.

Have fun with it!

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Productivity: I’ve heard back from one of the short story contests. I got a very nice standard rejection letter. Keep at it is one of my goals.

Motivation: My goals include taking courses with well-known people in the industry to learn how to follow-through and time-manage, etc. On my list are: Jack Canfield,  Eric Worre, Kim Klaver and Harv Eker and Sonia Stringer

Happy Moments:

  • holiday time spent with family and friends
  • snowshoeing on the local mountains with my husband, David.
  • continuing self-development and loving it!

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Perspective Photos:

frost

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird in hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

Listless and without a resolution

2016-beach

Silk’s Post #150 — Okay, I admit it. I’m a list addict. And I’ve also been known to make (and later break) many lists of New Year’s resolutions over the years.

This year will be different. I’m boldly going listless and resolution-free into 2016.

Okay, granted. We do need lists, calendars and the like to manage necessary, everyday chores with some semblance of efficiency. Grocery lists. Appointments. Or even slightly more aspirational, semi-optional tasks like cleaning out that closet. But do wishful items like “be nicer” or “get back to your weight when you were 18” or “write 1,000 words per day, everyday” really belong on a list?

Forget it! My theory is that if a task is, by its nature, fantastical or never-ending then it doesn’t belong on a to-do list. Items on lists are there to be crossed out, not to haunt you forever.

It’s not that I don’t have goals. And my memory (or occasional lack thereof) does demand that I rely on the crutch of a list now and then. But what I’m giving up for 2016 is the type of list that’s really a litany of promises to yourself that you feel guilty about breaking in the past, and are now pledging once again to keep. Oh, sure, you’re determined. This time you’ll succeed.

Or not.

It’s an inexplicably popular way to start the New Year – this annual confession of past sins, and the penance of try-trying-again. It swells the gym population in January, and spikes the sale of diet books and un-yummy health foods like kale and quinoa.

For writers it leads to word count goals, writing space reorganization, and plans for daily work regimens.

Unfortunately, for most of us, most of these good intentions have escaped from the barn, jumped the fence and are long gone by February or March, leaving a galloping guilt hangover. And the problem with guilt – especially for people who expect a lot of themselves and don’t react very well to failure – is that “getting right back on the horse” is often not what happens next. Instead, guilt triggers the self-defeating reaction of avoiding the horse altogether.

Horse? What horse?

And what then? Momentum is lost. The excuses and justifications begin. And the whole issue becomes a sore subject. For a writer, this means hoping that no well-meaning person will ask you how your book is coming along.

There’s got to be a better way. So here’s my plan for 2016: stop setting myself up for failure.

Despite all the conventional wisdom, I think lists and pledges and resolutions are basically sticks masquerading as carrots. Do lists of ambitious promises and rules really inspire people and make them succeed? I have my doubts.

I think what energizes people – what drives them toward a goal – is passion. Pure and simple. And you don’t manufacture passion by writing it down. It has to be felt, in the moment. Passion is a burning fire, not a commandment carved in stone, or some kind of a contract that must be fulfilled.

Neither can creativity be brought to life through a written-down prescription. Writers block does not dissolve in the acid of anxiety caused by your failure to be productive or live up to a pledge. If anything, fear of failure paralyzes rather than empowers.

Lists and resolutions come from the left brain. Creativity and inspiration come from the right brain. And the juice of passion gushes from the limbic brain. See my point? When it comes to getting your writing mojo on in the coming year, a list of New Year’s resolutions may be focusing on exactly the wrong part of your brain.

So how to stimulate and bring forth the impassioned writer inside you, coax out the muse who’s reluctant to show her face?

Here’s something ridiculously simple that I’m going to try: I’ll wake up every morning and – instead of immediately consulting my mental checklist of “things I have to do today” – I will take a few minutes to think about my story first. What happens next in the plot? What problems need to be worked out? What characters need some attention? Where can I take it today?

That’s it.

I will try to keep hooking myself on my story, keep firing up my creativity. Every morning. And then I’ll try to make the time to act on it. As much time as I can devote to it that day. Let my right brain rule. Feed my passion.

And let my left brain, and all its task-oriented priorities, wait their turn for a change.

I think I’ve finally learned, after several years of calling myself a writer, the reason my good intentions have not led to good writing “discipline”. Ironically, I thought that part would be easy, since I built a lot of discipline muscle in my 35-year career as the owner and creative director of a design and ad agency. But since I shifted gears to try my hand as a novelist, I’ve forgotten the obvious. Management discipline runs on logic and strategy. Creative discipline runs on emotion and exploration. Different brain cells. Different rules. And the twain don’t always meet.

If I want to take writing seriously – and I do – it can’t just be chore on my to-do list, though I have committed to finishing my book. It can’t just be a job, though I do accept the hard work required. It can’t be just about getting published, though it is important to me to share my words.

For me, writing has to be a true passion. It has to reward me in the moment of creation, the same way that doing a painting transports an artist, and making music feeds the soul of a musician. It has to be the thing I just can’t wait to do, the thing that makes me feel joyful, the thing that connects my heart to my mind.

When you have a passion, you can feed it – or you can starve it. If you don’t always keep it close to your heart, it withers.

I’ve come to recognize that the discipline, energy and focus it requires for me to write can only be generated by passion, fuelled by my love of storytelling. Simple truth: if I’m not feeling the love, I’m not getting it done. Making more pledges to be more disciplined isn’t going to work for me. What I need to do is renew and cultivate my passion for writing.

That’s why I’m going to take it day by day. Try to start off each morning, in those first moments of waking, thinking about my book. Letting myself be inspired, getting back into the story before all the other demands of the day flood in and replace my passion with … a list of chores.

I admit this is almost the polar opposite of the bootcamp approach, and maybe it sounds a little airy-fairy. Will this regime call my muse out, awaken my creativity and fire up my discipline?

We shall see. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year to all!

What happened to pen and paper?

Karalee’s Post #130

Jot it downLast week I had one of those aha moments, the kind that’s hard to admit because it is so obvious. The kind that the young these days call a brain fart.

It happened while I was driving around doing my daily work, fitness, errands and chores. A typical day until I actually noted and listened to that little voice in my head that kept whispering like a mantra of sorts.

“I can’t write right now. My computer is at home.”

It became painfully obvious that I’ve been using this as my excuse to NOT get my writing done. Throughout every day, and I mean every day, I have a few minutes here and there that I could be jotting ideas down. Heck, many of my “great” ideas come while I’m driving and my subconscious is diverted. It’s the equivalent to other people singing in the shower and the idea bulb suddenly lighting up in the mind like a movie set.

The thought can be so strong that it makes you rush naked and dripping out of the shower to write it down before it slips away down the drain along with your soaped up water.

Wait!

Did I say you rush to write it down? On what?

Do you risk dripping water on your computer? Maybe you grab a pen and write that brilliant thought down on good old-fashioned PAPER?

Aha! I  could do that in my vehicle.

I could stop at the curb, pull out pen and paper and jot my ideas down. Easy peasy and as obvious as a pimple on one’s nose.

Joe’s post this week If Writers Had Drill Sergeants was meant to be if you believe in Karma. Imagine what I can accomplish in a 45 minute burst with my ideas already written down and saved on paper, real paper, and not buried back in my subconscious. My pages could be pounded out so fast and furious that I’d burn my fingertips from the keyboard friction. I’d feel so euphoric that I would be Battling the Monster; writers and mental health like in Paula’s last post and I’d be cured of depression and self-doubts, and, and, and….

Can all this be because of pen and paper and simply saving my ideas? Intuitively I feel like a weight has been lifted and unhealthy ties severed between myself and having to have my computer handy in order to write at all. I don’t need to isolate myself in my office.

Also, I don’t need to take my computer everywhere with me, and find an outlet, and WiFi.

I could even go away for a weekend without it! My computer doesn’t rule all.

When I outline a novel idea I do it on a big roll of children’s drawing paper from Ikea. I use pencil. I draw circles and lines and write on the sides. I put in my timelines and dates and use different colors. I drink coffee and pace the floor. I walk outside to clear my head. I have FUN and it’s always with good old paper and pen ( or pencils).

It’s after this initial burst of creativity that I start to rely on the computer. I organize my chapters and research and character development using Scrivener. It’s a great tool and I love using it. I could also make Scrivener work for me when I’m not home and the ideas rolling around in my head start to surface. It’s easy to print out the last chapter I’m on, or a scene I’m fiddling with, or even the character development folder. I could take paper with me. I could jot stuff down on it. I could let my imagination go wild.

Then when I take those ideas and enter them into the computer it’s almost like the second draft. At this point Joe’s Drill Sergeant can take over.

Do other writers out there feel completely reliant on their computers to get any and all of their writing done? I think this is a mindset that many of us have fallen into.

I’m going to let go of my computer umbilical cord for a few minutes here and there every day and get back to keeping a notebook with me. And a pen. I know my creativity flows all day. I will jot it all down.

I will write on paper.

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Productivity: I’m at the midpoint of my third short story. I will print it out and take my pen and some more paper with me from the house. I will let you know next week how it works for me.

Motivation:  I’m following The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is on my bedside table along with Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness.

Happy Moments:

  • walking on the powdery snow-like beaches around Tampa Bay, Florida last week with my hubby and friends.
  • the heat in the sun in Florida
  • visiting the Chihuly Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida
  • my daughter dropping by with a list of recipes for us to bake for Christmas goodies. She has great taste.

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Perspective Photos:

 

chihuly glass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

chihuly boat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!