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Archive for March, 2011

When you frost a cake — warning, metaphor in progress — you don’t make it beautiful first. You don’t form attractive little swirls or make sugar roses to put onto the bare cake. You don’t put ripples in the sides or create little waves and peaks on the top. Not yet. That comes later.
 
The FIRST step is to slather on a rough layer of frosting. There’s no real technique to it. You just dump a big portion of the stuff out onto the cake and mush it down roughly. Even professional chefs do this. You just blop it on there. Blop. Mush. Smear.
 
You get all the frosting on there first, and then you go back and start smoothing it out. Then you make your swirls and your ripples and your professional-looking sugar roses.
 
I’ve always had a hard time with the “inefficiency” of writing a rough draft. Deep down, no matter how much I tell myself otherwise, I always want to write it perfect from the get-go, so that I don’t have to revise. The error in my thinking is my assumption that writing it “perfect” is in some way efficient. But the frosting metaphor makes it clearer to me. If you try to “frost it perfect,” you WILL create re-work for yourself. You’ll have to overwrite and demolish the stuff you worked so painstakingly on, in the course of frosting the whole cake. It just makes logical, obvious, boneheaded sense to frost it roughly first, and then do the fancy stuff once that’s done.
 
Plus, of course, writing painstakingly is PAINSTAKING! It’s not fun! So I find reasons not to do it. I get all caught up in the anxieties of it all, and I have an awful time during my writing sessions, and then I don’t look forward to it. It’s because I’m trying to write a story made out of perfect little sugar roses. It doesn’t work.
 
Slather. Dump. Get your frosting out there. Make a mess. Have fun with it.

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Plot: The Hand-Made Distance

Plot and character are closely linked, and the bridge between them is a GOAL.
 
Ever had one of those dreams where you’re late for something (late for school, late for work, late for the bus) or you’re running away from something (running from a disaster, running from monsters, running from an enemy), but your feet just don’t seem to move? Your muscles respond like you’re moving through a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pool full of corn syrup: a slow motion slog. Everything you do to try to get ahead just gets you further behind, closer to drowning, closer to crisis. Every solution transforms into a further monstrous obstacle. The distance to your goal seems unconquerable, thanks to the legion of nightmare-problems thrown in your way.
 
That’s plot.
 
Goals are the engine of the plot. Present your protagonist with a goal — a goal he desperately, passionately craves — but don’t gift-wrap that goal and leave it on his front porch. Hurl that goal into the invisible distance, and set up a string of obstacles in the way. No free rides. Make a list of dozens of potential ways that your story can prevent him from covering that distance. Get mean. Get freaking unfair. The less lucky your hero is, the more it can endear him to your audience. And then write it — write him into that mire. Watch him work to overcome them one by one, but then show how he just keeps climbing his way into the next disaster you had waiting for him.
 
Finally, once he seems to be within reach of that goal — once everything seems to be finally working out for him, his dreams are finally being realized, and he’s breathing a well-earned sigh of relief — bust it out. You know — IT. The worst obstacle, the most brutal one of all, the one that you saved for last. Throw it at him and let the final reckoning unfold. Explosions. Fireworks. The possibility that he will never accomplish that fervently-held goal, and yet the reality that there’s no way to turn back, no comforting old life to return to. The blackest, most dire moment of all, in which he could gain it all or lose it all.
 
That’s plot. It’s a series of roadblocks between your hero and his goal. (Including a biggest one, which he encounters last.)
 
That means that choosing the goal is very important. You probably have a vague goal for your protag now. But how do you know if it’s good enough?
 
Ask yourself what makes the character take action. Think of her, and then start poking and prodding at her. Take something away from her. Does she react? Then it wasn’t a good enough obstacle. So take away something more dear. Does that get her riled up? Ooh, good, you’re getting closer. Keep going. What would make her give it all away? What would make it clear to her that there’s no going back to the way things were? What would make her risk everything, put everything on the line, in order to achieve it? What would make her sacrifice her job, her position in society, her most cherished possession, the opinions of her peers, the love of her family? What’s the thing she desires most — and relatedly, what does she fear the most? What knocks her out of complacency, so that she has to do the unthinkable in order to achieve her most fundamental desires? What is the thing she would gladly die in order to accomplish?
 
That’s your protagonist’s goal. Find it, and then deny it, and you’ve got yourself a plot.

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The middle of your story is a chain of actions and reactions. The hero tries to accomplish some goal, but there keep being obstacles in the way. Every obstacle he overcomes must lead him to a new one, and usually, it’s a worse one. The hero keeps being frustrated at every turn, but he can’t back out. He wants to find solutions, but you’ve set it up so there’s no easy answers. He’s forced to press on, chaining together attempts to reach his goal while things just get worse and worse.
 
One way to set up this chain of actions and reactions is by forcing bad choices. The hero is presented with two or more options, but each one is going to make things worse for him. There’s a fork in the road, but no matter what he chooses, he’s just going to get deeper into trouble.
 
Be sure to emphasize for the reader what the dire consequences would be for each option. Tell the reader the stakes.
 
Example 1: A lawyer is trying to win a case for his client, a suspected murderer. There’s piles of evidence connecting his client to the murder, and no way she’s going free. He can either have his client plead guilty, in which case she’ll rot in jail and maybe even be executed; or not guilty by reason of insanity, in which case she’ll be torn from her family, disgraced, and locked away with lunatics.
 
Example 2: A kid lies to her mom and goes somewhere she’s not supposed to go — to an abandoned house. While she’s there, she learns a dangerous secret that involves her family. She can tell her mom about it, in which case she’ll get in trouble for lying and for disobeying her mother. Or she can keep it a secret, in which case there might be great danger for her family.
 
In chess, a powerful tactic is known as the “fork.” Essentially it’s forcing your opponent into a bad choice. You move your bishop in such a way that it’s either going to take your opponent’s knight or your opponent’s rook. The choice is up to your opponent, but either way, he’s going to be closer to losing. It’s a good strategy for winning at chess, and a great strategy for making things worse for your protag and more thrilling for your reader.
 
What bad choices can you force your hero into?

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There are plenty of ways to improve your technique and your craft of writing. There are books everywhere on the topic. And mostly you get better just by doing it a lot.
 
But when it comes down to it, there aren’t any commandments for writers. 

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” – ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Get in there. Write something that makes you tingle. Don’t worry about the universe of critics you’re dreaming up. They don’t exist, and even if they do they don’t matter. Everything’s up to you.

“There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.” – SOPHY BURNHAM

The great writers of history had no more weapons than you have right now; they just put in the time. There’s no secret manual. There’s no code of regulations or referees to blow the whistle when you’re doing it wrong. There’s only one thing that counts: did you finish it? It’s all a matter of sitting down and doing the work.

“Write. Start writing today. Start writing right now. Don’t write it right, just write it –and then make it right later. Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy the process, because the process of writing is a long one. Be wary of ‘writing rules’ and advice. Do it your way.” – TARA MOSS

I always try to look for methods, tools, techniques to improve my writing. I can learn to write dialogue better, or construct a scene better, or write a better ending. But if someone tells me “always” or “never” I ignore it. If it feels right, I write it. Sometimes even if it feels wrong, I write it. There’s time to revise later. Get it out there. No roadblocks.

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” – NEIL GAIMAN

In normal society, we have to follow rules. But you’re a writer — that means you’re a little bit of a badass. You get to plow ahead where others fear to tread. Don’t let imagined rules hold you back.

 Thanks to http://www.advicetowriters.com/ for the quotes.

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Writing while trying to be perfect is like looking down at your feet while you run, trying to place each step in just the right place. You can’t run that way. Or even if you can, you look like a weirdo, few would call it running, and you’re certainly not having any fun.
 
Rush. Get breakneck. Leap over obstacles because you’re at full speed. Feel the fences graze your butt as you sail over them. You don’t get to feel those things if you’re carefully avoiding every crack in the pavement.

 “To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Always live up to your standards — by lowering them, if necessary.” – Mignon McLaughlin

Sure, you’ll end up with some bad writing. But that beautiful little sentence you got to at the end of your writing sprint? That moving little scene you happened upon while hurrying those words out? You would never have reached that if you had your magnifying glass and tape measure out. And let me tell you this: however bad some of that writing looks, I’ve written way worse.
 
What would “perfect” be to a shot-putter? To throw that heavy ball an infinite distance? That doesn’t even make sense. The shot-putter’s only concern is throwing it farther than he’s ever thrown it before. Focus on throwing farther, not throwing “perfect.” Hurl out words that are truer and richer than the last time you wrote. That’s the goal.

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Permit me a quick cat anecote. Like any housecat, my cat liked to get into mischief — clawing the curtains and the furniture, that sort of thing. When I scolded her for her bad behavior (“Bad kitty!” and other brilliant disciplinary speeches of that ilk) she would get this look on her face. She’d look grumpy, resentful, and scheming — the feline equivalent of grumbling under her breath. What immediately followed was that she would go find her sister — the smaller, more innocent cat — and swat her. It happened every time. I even learned to step between them just in time, to keep her from redirecting her vengeance onto the littler cat. I had developed a whole psychological theory of what was going on in the scolded cat’s head — her picking on the smaller cat seemed to be her method of coping with the frustration feelings, a way to seek satisfaction when she couldn’t plead her case to her human accuser.

Or… maybe not. I had no way to verify that that’s what was actually going on in her little kitty brain, of course. I just used my day-to-day knowledge of how people psychology works, and projected that onto my cat.

My own anthropomorphic tendencies aside, we do this kind of thinking about other people all the time. When a busy office worker snaps over a seemingly minor comment, we think it might be because he’s stressed out. When a jilted lover lashes out in a violent rage, we theorize that her external violence might be connected to some internal feelings of betrayal.

Philosophers of mind sometimes call this “folk psychology”: the sum of all the ordinary observations, explanations, and predictions we make about how other people’s minds work. The fact that we deal with people every day, and that we know what our own emotions and thoughts feel like from the inside, means that we do plenty of armchair psychology throughout our lives. We get very good at finding psychological reasons behind actions, to the point that we can even predict how people will react in a given set of circumstances.

You’re doing a version of the same thing when you write about fictional characters. Each time your protagonist experiences some important stimulus in the world you’ve created around her, you’re using your commonsense theories of the human mind to determine how she’ll react to that stimulus. When she discovers the letter that proves she’s adopted, how will she feel, and how will that feeling lead her to action? She doesn’t act randomly — there’s a logic to it. Psychological logic. The stimulus leads to a feeling, which leads to her taking action — and of course that action eventually leads to further circumstances that serve as the next stimulus.

If your protagonist isn’t taking action, then get in her head. Get your hero off her butt and into some forward motion by setting up a chain of stimulus, feeling, and action. Create troublesome circumstances (stimulus) that will lead to troubled psychological states (feeling) that will lead to strong external behavior (action). If she’s not swatting anyone, then her psychology might be too complacent. Perturb her. Ask yourself: what emotions cause people to take action? Teen embarrassment, envy, career dissatisfaction, puppy love, economic woes, loneliness, road rage, frustration, feelings of unjust accusation? And then ask yourself: what stimuli could cause those emotions? (Maybe getting called “bad kitty.”) Use your everyday theories of human psychology to figure out what it would take to make your hero take action.

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Each day during February 2011 I wrote the first couple pages of a new story. February has twenty-eight days in it (at least this year it did), so I generated the beginnings of twenty-eight stories this way. (And I shared them all in this blog. Check out the February archives if you’re curious.)

Did I do this because I was being held captive in some dank content-generation dungeon? No, although “Dank Content-Generation Dungeon” will be the name of my Seattle coffee shop franchise. I just wanted to practice writing the beginnings of stories. It was good practice, as it turned out, and I learned some things in the process. These things I now share.

There are a lot of good stories inside you. I suspected that I would start flopping around on the ground in an idealess tantrum by about week two, and that I would be blogging from the loony bin by week four. Actually I had no problem coming up with new ideas, and none of them was that crazy or far-fetched. In fact I think every one of them has a spark of something that could turn into at least a short story. There are plenty of ideas in you, and you can bring them out if you sufficiently motivate yourself to find them.

Your first idea is not always your best one. The other half of the coin is that, while the quantity of stories inside you might be vast, the quality of any particular idea might not be high. Odds are, your best ideas are not right at the surface — they are buried a few layers down. Story Starter Month was a great way to do a bit of a core sample, to plow my way quickly through twenty-someodd ideas and iterate past the ho-hum ones.

First person is magical. I have always had a fondness for the third person omniscient perspective. I’m greedy for the flexibility and power of being able to skip from point of view to point of view and listen in on multiple lives. But this month I’ve had a little fling with the magic of first person. This project required storytelling methods that would let the story burst out of the gate in a matter of 250-500 words, and the intimacy and immediacy of first person was often just the accelerator I chose for the job. I didn’t start them all in first person, but after the first few story starters, I was always tempted.

The emotions you care about on page one are worry and curiosity. Your immediate goal in the first pages of your story is to hook the reader. To do that, you want to elicit worry — concern for the protagonist — or curiosity — interest in what’s going to happen next. Or both. Elicit worry by creating a character the reader can root for and then start piling threats and dangers on her. Elicit curiosity by throwing expectations out of whack and disturbing the reader’s sense of logic. I did not always succeed at this. I definitely wrote a couple of duds this month that didn’t manage to elicit either. The character was dull or annoying, so the reader wouldn’t be concerned for her, or the situation was mundane, so the reader wasn’t curious what was going on. Your readers want to be curious and want to worry.

Deadlines that affect others motivate me. I already knew that I was deadline-oriented. I am a procrastinator–or as I like to think of it, a personal anxiety optimizer–and my productivity-brain does not kick in until it’s clear that something of the appropriate level of badness will happen. But over the years I’ve found reasonable ways to trick myself into that same kind of motivating-deadline feeling. A strong personal intention is not powerful enough. A life goal of just “wanting to write” is not specific enough. Even a strong personal intention in service to a specifically-worded life goal does not typically impress my imperious sense of relaxation-entitlement. But when there’s a deadline — and other people are going to be checking in on that deadline — then I do the work, and I do it pretty conscientiously. This blog is basically a big trick to convince my neural folds to get past its default lazyness.

The hard part is the sitting down. I’m not sure if non-writers will get this, but as a writer, I frequently forget that I enjoy writing. The whole point of all my personal goals to write is that writing is something I get fulfillment from. And yet I often have to drag myself to the computer kicking, screaming, and quite unmanlily, scratching. What I found this month is that the bad part is the sitting down. The real work is the process of stopping whatever else I’m doing, barricading myself with my laptop, opening up a fresh page, and getting the first word typed in. Once all that’s out of the way, I enjoy doing the writing! It feels ridiculous for that to be a eureka moment for me, but it has been. Maybe remembering that enjoyment will make the sitting-down part easier. I do so enjoy scratching people, though.

Dinner: Shrimp and turkey-sausage jambalaya made in my new Dutch oven.

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