From Fantasy to Reality and Back Again

by Christina Lay

Perhaps you’ve found yourself wanting or needing to write about a place you’ve never been, but you feel confident you can pull it off because you’ve read so many books about the place, watched so many movies, and done so much research when you should’ve been writing that you feel like you’ve been there, that you know it through and through.

This happened to me a while back. I decided to finally write that steam punk fantasy mystery that’s been swirling in my mind for years. I had the story completely figured out. I set pen to paper (or actually, fingers to keyboard) and…wrote about a page. I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, the words, or the grounding that I needed to continue. You see, this story began in London. I’ve never been to London, but I truly felt that I knew it so well I could have my characters walk the streets and the descriptions would come to mind as I went. After all, it’s one of those places that permeate popular culture. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens , even Paddington Bear. I’ve probably read hundreds of books set in London and its environs, and watched even more movies. The images are there, but the grounding details are not.

As I sit here and think the word “London”, innumerable scenes scroll through my head; all supplied by other people’s fiction and news reports. Yes, I can do copious amounts of research and fill in all those missing words and street names, but nothing can replace actually walking the streets, smelling the diesel fumes, turning a corner and stumbling across that unexpected something that unlocks the key to your next scene.

The Expected

I’m writing about this now because I’ve recently had the experience of finally setting foot in another of those iconic places: New York City. If there is anywhere in the world more entrenched in my imagination than London, it’s probably New York, and this mostly from television. Isn’t every other TV show set there? Isn’t every other comedian born there? We studied it in school, starting with pictures of Dutch guys buying Manhattan from the Native Americans for a handful of beads and culminating with a barrage of vivid images from 9/11. Hardly a day goes by without some image being beamed at me from Times Square or Wall Street or Madison Avenue. I had definite and firm images planted in my brain, and not only images, but expectations and emotional responses. I knew NYC would be exciting to visit, and full of interesting things, but I also had a pre-loaded set of expectations fueled mainly by 70s era TV. You know, Starsky & Hutch, Barretta, that sort of gritty crime show. Cold, hard, dirty, scary, unfriendly. Vast blocks of rundown slums. Shady characters menacing people in Central Park and on subway cars.

What I did not expect was the vast amount of historical buildings in fine shape, the beauty of the skyline, the European elegance, and the friendliness of most of the people. And a rather disappointing lack of shady characters.

I’m not here to do a travelogue for Manhattan. What became important to me is how vastly my internal NYC landscape has changed. It has morphed from a frightening, sprawling Metropolis to an endlessly intriguing patchwork of neighborhoods where real people live and work. And the big picture is now peppered with small details, little glimpses into daily life. True, ten days as a tourist does not an expert make, but I can now confidently have a character walk through Central Park without relying wholly on outdated scenery supplied by someone else’s artistic eye.
I thought a lot about the TV show Seinfeld while I was there. So much reminded me of that show, of what I expected to see, and I was happy to see it, but I was even happier to see the unexpected.

The Unexpected

The Highline is a great example; this is an elevated train track that has been converted into a raised park, a pedestrian skyway full of vegetation, art installations, fascinating backstreet views and yes, tourists. I’d read about it, but walking it let me peek not only into the “backyard” of the meat packing district, but it gave me a glimpse into the heart of the people who live there. It’s an amazing civic project, one that says a lot about the city that grew it. And what it says is nothing I ever would have expected.

I can talk about the sensory overload of being in a place, but you know that already: how valuable it is to stand on the corner and smell, touch, listen, and taste the environment. To meet real people instead of observe characters, to walk through Central Park at night and be only a little bit nervous.

Displacing a landscape crafted over decades is a touch trickier, and truly a fascinating experiment in rewiring one’s brain. Even now, I can feel the reality slipping back beneath the layers of fantasy that I, as a compulsive storyteller, can’t help but weave. But now, at least, my fantasy is grounded in reality. There are many places you can’t go; ancient Babylon being one, The third moon of Saturn another. But if you can go, and if you want a place to play a major role in a writing project, there’s no substitute for being there. Only your own experience can displace the imaginary world in your head, and then seed it,feed it and regrow it into a more authentic fantasy when you return.

Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Gratefulness: The Stone in Community Soup

FB1FBD85-58CF-4860-9801-6906C8C78E09By Cynthia Ray

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she says:

It is said that only humans have the capacity for gratitude. This is among our gifts.  It is such a simple thing, but we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity. We know that appreciation begets abundance”

It is almost as if appreciation and gratitude create something from nothing. There is an old folk tale called “Stone Soup” in which hungry travelers without resources or food put a stone into a pot of boiling water.  Curious villagers stop by to see what is going on and are told that this is stone soup, and if only they had a bit of garnish to improve the flavor it would be quite tasty.  Intrigued, the first villager contributes a few carrots for which the travelers are grateful.  The next passer-by contributes an onion, and so on, until a delicious soup is created and shared by all.  The inedible stone becomes the catalyst for sharing and nourishes everyone and generates gratitude which begets abundance.

The value of connection with a vibrant, generous, and creative group of writers and artists cannot be overstated. Through the miracle of connection, a wonderful community soup emerges, that nourishes all of us as writers, as artists, and as a people.

When I took a writing class at a local community college, many years ago, I had no idea that it would launch me on a lifetime journey of discovery, of becoming, and of connection.  In that short fiction writing class I met writers with a similar mindset and purpose.  They were quirky, off-beat, had a sense of humor, and loved to write and read fiction of all kinds.  The teacher, a well-known published author, made her living as a full-time writer.  That in itself was inspiring, but she also had a heart for mentoring and encouraging budding and would be writers of all ages and abilities.  She created community just by who she was and what she believed in.   Just like in the folk tale, giving creates community, and is reciprocal, ongoing, and ever-expanding.

One key piece of advice that I took from her class was to join a writing critique group, and to attend writing conferences and workshops.  Since then, I have been a member of several writing and critique groups and facilitated one for several years.  In those circles, one comes to know people on a different level.  These groups provided a place to share the knowledge, expertise, challenge and joy of writing.  The connection and friendships that came from those critique groups continue to unfold.

Over time, the connections that I have made with writers, artists, and mystics, have supported me, have inspired me, and have amazed me.  When someone I know publishes a book or story, I feel pride for them.  I buy the book, read it, review it, and share it.   I know what it takes to write a story, I know what they put into that book. Perhaps I heard them read an early version at a critique group, or perhaps they shared the struggle to produce that beautiful piece of work, and I rejoice with them that it passed out of the valley of the shadow of possibility, and through their efforts into a real contribution to the community soup.

Another gift connection brings is the synergistic and creative collaboration that is born out of artistic community. Two examples from Shadowspinners include the collaborative “Collection of Dark Tales”, and the Labyrinth of Souls Novels, which started as a collaboration between Matt Lowes as the creator of a game called Labyrinth of Souls based on Tarot cards, and an artist in Germany. The game inspired a collaboration of writers to produce novels loosely based on the game, with the common theme of a journey to an underworld.  Some incredible writing came and continues to come from that collaboration.

I am eternally grateful for the indelible friendships, for the generous, open-hearted hands that helped me along the way, with feedback, with encouragement, with a kick in the backside when needed, and everything that went into the community soup, even the stones. No, especially the stone.  It’s the catalyst.

 

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Friends are Forever….

 

What I Learned From Watching 192 Episodes of The Murdoch Mysteries

by Christina Lay

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Murdoch Mysteries is a long running Canadian series; a cozy historical mystery set in Toronto in the late 1880s/early 1900s. This show is exactly my cup of tea. Cozy, check. Historical, check. Mystery, check.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve watched twelve seasons of sixteen episodes each says more about me than it does about the show, but I think there is a lot we as storytellers can learn from such a durable series.

What the show does right, IMHO:

The main character, Detective William Murdoch, is an interesting, intelligent, well-drawn protagonist. He is keenly interested in all of the technological revolutions occurring in the time period of the show, and his enthusiasm can’t help but engage the viewer. This was a brilliant piece of story crafting, to meld a fundamental characteristic of the hero with the exciting, ever-ripe-for-conflict reality of the turn of the last century. Detective Murdoch, an exceptionally clever man, is often allied with or pitted against great minds and personalities of the time. The first episode features Nikolai Tesla. Over the years, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Marconi, and a host of other inventors, scientists, authors and politicians. Even Frank Lloyd Wright gets accused of murder. Most of the famous “guest stars” are, of course, accused of murder at some point. All are proven innocent, for which history is thankful.

What can we learn aside from the obvious requirement to write interesting characters? A character is more than a set of characteristics. They are creatures of their milieu. Give them interesting times and people to react with and against, and they will grow and come to life. This is especially effective if the setting is an interesting character in its own right. For instance, Murdoch and his wife end up buying and living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, much to the confusion and pity of their friends. In this case, the viewer gets to “be in the know” and have a gentle laugh at those silly Victorians. (Although personally, I’d rather have one of those lovely Victorian houses featured in every show!)

The secondary characters are also interesting, intelligent and well-drawn. Murdoch’s romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden, is not just a foil for Murdoch. She often has her own story lines, pitting her modern, progressive viewpoints against the staid, patriarchal society of the times. She’s a woman doctor who runs for office and is thrown in jail for it. She’s had an abortion, which causes a believable rift between her and the devout Catholic Murdoch. She enjoys cutting edge art and brings levity and wit to many a stuffy social occasion. This is another great conflict generator, and another way to learn about the actual history of suffrage and women’s rights.

I find it amazing that a show can go for so long and not lose or corrupt any of its core cast. The gruff Inspector Brackenreid, the charming and gullible Constable Crabtree, even the annoying journalist Miss Cherry and not-so-bright Constable Higgens are all characters that are fully drawn and reliable, and by reliable I mean that the writers do not resort to having our favorites do stupid or ridiculous things just because the creators are running out of ideas. Consistency and clarity work in the case of a cozy. When readers/viewers develop a fondness for a character, they don’t want them to change too much. Yes, the characters expand their horizons, learn, recognize prejudice inside themselves, become more tolerant, stretch their horizons, etc., but their basic goodness does not change.

A stellar ensemble of actors doesn’t hurt

Now, some readers/viewers might consider this boring. I’d suggest that these are not your target audience if you’re writing this type of series. The audience for cozies does not require great upheavals, radical shifts, or the killing off of regular characters. In fact, they will rebel. In this aspect of coziness, Murdoch excels. Perhaps Canadian actors are less likely to demand more money and leave the show?

The mysteries are often (though not always) blended with scientific developments or social issues of the times. This is another great way that the setting is put to use. Murdoch is always dreaming up innovations right about the time the real inventor shows up in an episode. In the Tesla episode, someone is electrocuted and Tesla helps Murdoch figure out how. Cameras, fingerprinting, night vision goggles, even a lie detector, are all put to good use for the first time and we get to imagine what those developments were really like, and how significantly things were changing. There is a touch of sci-fi to the series, because of all the wild inventions which were in fact real, or just on the horizon.

What the show does wrong, IMHO:

The mysteries themselves are often silly. Or, there is a whopping coincidence (or two) or something just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the show is generally playful in tone, but the writers have trained their viewers to expect truly engaging content and sometimes, the basic structure on which everything else hangs isn’t up to snuff. However, because the characters and setting are so big and well-developed, a weak plot can stumble along and no one minds too much (except a writer who is taking notes).

I spoke of consistency as one of the strong points of the show. The only times I’ve given up on an episode is when my expectation of the show has been let down. In these cases, the disappointment comes in the form of the tired and annoying plot device of the serial killer who develops an obsession with Murdoch and then just won’t die. These characters are always more persistently violent and psychotic than what jives with a cozy, and I personally find them boring, because there’s nothing to solve, only a lunatic to escape from. As a writer, if you have success in creating a cozy mystery, be wary of treading into darker, more grisly and hopeless waters. Probably you’d be better off starting a new series altogether.

Along with the occasional serial killer, the writers will sometimes fall back on tired tropes, such as using the long suffering Doctor Ogden as victim just so Murdoch can suffer the agonizing pains of worry and then be heroic in rescuing her. Also, every single regular character has been falsely accused of murder. That’s a bit much to take. Every time Murdoch and Ogden talk about how happy they are, something goes terribly wrong. That level of loud foreshadowing is just annoying.

What I learned about myself as a consumer of story: I like to know what to expect, even if it’s to expect the unexpected. In other words, I choose what shows to watch based a lot on what mood I’m in. If I’m in the mood for cozy and familiar, then by gum, it had better be cozy and familiar. As writers, we have no control over what readers want; however, if we are writing a series, we can be consistent about our tone, level of violence, and so on.

If I really love the characters, I’ll let a wobbly plot slide.

I have a low tolerance for the unsolvable conundrum of a one-dimensional psychopath.

To sum up, The Murdoch Mysteries is a fine example of one my core beliefs: Character is everything. In the worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, multiple book series have become the norm. I believe this is because readers don’t want to let go of characters they love. How often have we wished a great book would never end? When that happens, it sometimes feels like we’re losing a good friend. If you can create that level of devotion for your characters, you may just achieve a 12-season level of success.

When Throwing Yourself Off A Cliff Stops Working

by Christina Lay

I’ve confessed before that I am the type of writer who works without an outline. The term is Panster, as in “by the seat of your pants”. That’s not entirely apt.  When I start writing a book, I have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. I have a character in a setting with a problem. I know what they want and what’s standing in the way of getting it. I might have a love interest, an antagonist, or a really screwed up family already waiting in the wings. In other words, I’m not flying blind. Chances are, I’ve visualized several scenes in my head. The protagonist’s voice is firmly established. I’m ready to roll.

 

Where the seat of the pants part comes in is the fact that I have nothing written down except a few ideas, snatches of dialogue, and character notes. I have not worked out how the plot is going to progress. I haven’t solved any transitions or tangled plot issues, because I don’t even know what they are yet.  So the first draft is an exciting ride, a test of imaginary agility, and without fail, a mess of epic proportions. But what can I say? That’s how my creativity stays sparked.

And it works, usually. Using this method, I’ve completed about 15 novels and novellas. In recent years, I’ve been able to complete two novellas in a year. However, I recently had the experience of spending over a year writing the first draft of one novella, which turned into a novel along the way (that was part of the problem, but not the only one). Mid-way through, I became well and truly stuck. This is nothing new. It happens with every novel, usually several times, and somehow I wail and claw my way through it.  But this time was different. None of my usual tricks seemed to work.

My first trick is quite clever: I write things down.  Yes, I actually open ye olde spiral notebook to a fresh page and compose a bare bones outline, chapter by chapter, going over where I’ve been, projecting outward to where I’m going, and trying to see where exactly I went wrong. If I’m lucky, this works the first time and I can see where I pushed ahead with an idea because it was shiny and not because it had anything to do with character motivation or a natural sequence of events.

With a particularly tough nut of a plot problem, I might have to re-do this outline more than once, seeking out transition problems between chapters, seeing where I get bored (guaranteeing the reader will too), looking at the fork in the road where the entire juggernaut trundled off in the wrong direction.

In most cases, I don’t do much backtracking or heavy duty rewriting until I reach the end of the first draft. “Fix it in the rewrite” is a mantra that carries me through many a dark day. But sometimes the quagmire becomes too deep, the plot too murky, to keep going. I hate this. I have a deep aversion to stopping, losing momentum, becoming distracted. This time, I had to admit I’d done the outline analysis trick several times. I had to stop. Walk away. Get a fresh perspective. Take another running leap at the thing and fail get again.

One might wonder why the book didn’t become a drawer novel at this point. After all, I’ve got several in the queue, all better and shinier and much, much easier to write (surely). But this book is the fourth in a series. A fourth promised long ago. A deadline crossed and vanished over the horizon. I’ve even had readers query about it, for crying out loud. Plus, I really want to finish the damn book.

So my second trick of taking a little break and letting my subconscious percolate without my interference didn’t work either. Months went by with very little activity at the keyboard. I approached the novel again with my new outlines. Failed. Started to think I’ve forgotten how to novel altogether. That I’d reached the end of my creative juice. That the first 15 novels were a fluke.  That I suffered brain damage while under anesthesia. I was getting desperate. But not desperate enough to write a real outline. That’s just crazy talk.

As it happens, while I suffered through the winter of my Worst Novel Ever, my cohort here at ShadowSpinners, Eric Witchey, wrote this blog. In it, he points out a simple fact: just because something worked once, or multiple times, is no guarantee it will work again. Ironically, the example he uses is hang gliding, literally throwing yourself off a cliff. How annoying, but also such an apt description of my current predicament. I couldn’t figure out why doing the same thing I’d always done before wasn’t working.

I made some changes and tried a third trick. I abandoned the spiral notebook and the linear outline for 3 x 5 cards. On it, I wrote each key scene and the major plot point it represented.

I abandoned my desk, and spreads the cards out on my living room floor.

I sat and stared at them.

The cat chewed off the corners and rearranged them under the coffee table.

Cats are terrible editors: don’t listen to them!

 

I stirred them around and identified the scenes that were shiny, but not helpful. The scenes that had been grafted in from another novel idea, because shiny. The scene that just didn’t fit in with the flow. The one coincidence too many. The disposable scene. The gap that made no sense.

And the one thing that I had to do, absolutely had to do, was start rewriting from the very beginning, even though I’d come so close to finishing the first draft. There was no point in going forward because the entire thing had to be reworked.  At first I tried to preserve my words (precious, precious words!), but those words (so many words) were holding me to plot points that just didn’t work. So I murdered my darlings and buried them in a folder called “cut bits”. (This is a game we writers play: pretending that someday we’ll salvage those wonderful, wonderful words).

At last, I broke out of the quagmire and began to progress, ever so slowly, through the rewrite.

Here’s a fourth trick, one that I wish for all writers to have the wherewithal to do every now and again, whether they are stuck or not.  Go on a retreat.  There is nothing quite like solid hours—I’m talking eight hours a day for several days—to push through to The End. I only recently went on a four day retreat and one year after I began it, I finished the first draft (cue fireworks). For tips on how to have a successful retreat, read Lisa Alber’s blog here.

Now in this case, the first draft consists of several mini-drafts, but I reached The End, the plot seems to hold together, and now I can go back and begin to clean it up.

So the point is, when things get tough, and I mean really tough, the answer is not to quit, but to be willing to do things differently and admit you don’t have all the answers just because you’ve attended five thousand hours of writing workshops and read 872 books on the craft of writing.

The mind is a funny thing, and so is creativity, and so is storytelling. Get a different perspective. Change your methodology. Write in a different place. Start over. Let your cat decide (but not really). There are so many different ways to get past a roadblock. The only way to guarantee you won’t get around it is to stop trying.

5 Tips for a Stellar Writing Retreat

By Lisa Alber

I just returned from a five-day writing retreat in Sunriver, Oregon. 7000+ words written. I wrote my way out of a plot blockage. Good friends. Good food. Great vista. All in all, perfection.

I got to thinking about all the many writing retreats I’ve gone on over the years, excluding retreats run by professionals. Half my retreats are solo adventures, the other half with pals. For the latter, here are my five recommendations for a perfect writing retreat:

Come prepped and with specific goals.

If the goal is to maximize word count, then come with research and ideas in mind. If the goal is to finish those last few chapters to The End, then be ready to pound them out and revise later. If you’re in revisions, have a general strategy and perhaps a daily goal.

Choose like-minded retreat pals.

Let’s face it, some people are more social than others. It helps to surround yourself with people with similar work habits. I have several gangs of writing retreat buds. We’re all focused, independent, and ready to relax at the end of a productive day. Being social is part of the fun of a retreat, of course, but it works best if people are on the same wavelength.

Location location location.

Pick a beautiful location with vistas so the eye can settle into a deep and tranquil distance. The closer to nature the better. I’m a big fan of retreat spots with plenty of space, indoors and out, so that we can spread out or write communally, as desired.

Prep the food beforehand.

We come prepared! (And there’s always too much food.) We’re each in charge of a meal, and breakfast is either unstructured, or not. As long as there’s plenty of coffee, I don’t care about breakfast. I also like the freedom of eating lunch while I write, but then for sure coming together for dinner.

Relax with walks, naps, sitting in the sun, early bedtimes, reading …

No point in driving yourself into a state of anxiety. That’s for everyday life. Fill the creative well!

 

 

Auditory Imagery

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by Cheryl Owen Wilson

I’ve just returned from my first ever vacation in Italy.  I woke this morning in Eugene, Oregon, and missed terribly the sound of church bells ringing.  They rang, in every city on the hour, and in some on the half hour, during my stay in this colorful country.  My favorites were in the small town of Cinque Terre-Monterosso, where I heard not only the usual bong, bong, etc., but the delicate tinkle of chimes as well.  Forever more when I hear church bells ringing, an image of vibrantly colored homes looking as though carved from the very cliff sides where they cling along the Ligurian Sea, will appear in my mind.

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As writers we are instructed to make certain we utilize the five senses in our stories.  Our characters must see, taste, smell, touch and hear.  For the purpose of my blog today, I’m going to focus on one sense—sound.

Ambient sounds permeate our daily lives.  Yet, can you remember the first sound you heard this morning (that was not your alarm going off)?   I asked this question randomly, and found most couldn’t recall the first sound of their day.  However, when I asked them to describe the sounds of their last vacation they easily responded: Ocean waves, birds chirping, children’s laughter, music, etc.  They then, without provocation, proceeded to describe a scene related to each sound.

There is a term for this in writer’s lingo: auditory imagery.   It is when a writer uses sound to invoke an image in their readers minds.  The result being their reader will both hear and see in equal measure.

What are the ambient sounds present in your story’s world?  Is falling rain hitting the tiled roof of a villa utilized to invoke a sense of calm and peace?   Or does the rain incite dread given the tiles are loose causing rain to leak through on to a valuable work of art?   Do birds chirping arouse in your reader a vision of a Disney movie, or a scene from the 1963 movie, The Birds?

I find this form of using sound to be fascinating, and challenging.  How do you find the perfect “sound” in order to illicit the image desired?  As a writer, you know it’s by beginning the eternal, time sucking search for said word.  For you must have the exact sound to match the image you are trying to invoke.  Since there is a word for everything, of course there is a word for this search: onomatopoeia.

Now for an exercise in the use of auditory imagery.  Should I have used gong, instead of bong, when trying to invoke in you, the image of an ancient bell tower in Italy?  For those of you who are not writers, you now have a better understanding of why we as writers, are randomly described as crazy as loons, or have bats in our belfry.  Try that on for auditory imagery.  Go on, google the sound of a loon, and let your mind see and hear hundreds of bat wings flapping in a bell tower or better yet, someone’s mind.

As some of you are aware, I’m also a painter. Italy provided me with a rare opportunity to view art from Dali, to Picasso.  However, Kandinsky was my favorite.  As an artist Kandinsky used the sound of music as a muse (which some of us writer’s do as well).  So, I thought it befitting to include his quote in this blog.

“Form itself, even if completely abstract … has its own inner sound.”
― Wassily Kandinsky

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Every single word, in every single story is used to invoke an image.  Sound is but one way to accomplish that end.  In my stories I have the many sounds coming from swampy marshes to invoke the spine-chilling images I wish my readers to see.  What are the sounds you use?