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-

 

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.

Nostalgia For What I Never Had

By Lisa Alber

I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.

Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?

Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.

Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”

I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.

Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.

Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.

It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.

I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.

Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.

I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …

She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.

Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.

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!

 

 

Seriously Silly

by Christina Lay

I’ve always been a fan of silliness well-done. Be it Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks or Tom Robbins writing from a vibrator’s POV or Douglas Adams taking us across the universe with nothing but a towel and terrible poetry for company, there is a special sort of joy in reveling in a world where the absurd is commonplace and maturity is a liability.  Lately though, it seems like everyone is becoming much too serious; unable to laugh at themselves or enjoy a quirky perspective on life in general. Our entertainment reflects this, and we get more Game of Thrones, less The Tick. This despite the fact that the more grim and desperate reality becomes, the more we need to laugh, to lose ourselves in mirth.

Just today in a daily inspirational email that I receive, I read this on silliness: “We play yet we do not lose ourselves in play, and our imaginations are never truly given free rein because we regard the products of irrational creativity as being valueless.” Madisyn Taylor, Daily Om.

Irrational creativity. I love that. I had already been thinking about the value of silliness when I read it because I’d been planning to review the book, Space Opera, by Catherine M. Valente, so lucky me, it ties right in to the larger, all important theme of this blog. Yes, as the title suggests, Space Opera is pure and unapologetic space opera (Meaning Science Fiction that pays no attention whatsoever to physics or actual technology. Getting across the galaxy or even the universe might be as simple as pressing a button or hijacking a police call box). This book not only indulges in make-believe science, it revels in it. I appreciate that.  The book is sheer fun, sheer silliness, imagination run riot, and yet…

For a truly silly book to be memorable and not just a forgettable airplane read (which is of course valuable in its own right) a well-crafted silly book is anchored by moments of profundity. The thing about humor is there’s really no better way to set the reader up for a glimpse into the heart and soul of humanity. It’s Us laid bare, exposed, shown with all our warts and ill-fitting plaid jackets, but with compassion, kindness and a deep understanding of the silly kid locked inside of us all.

So that was quite the sentence. To break it down, I’ll quote Catherine Valente. “Life is beautiful. Life is stupid.”  That’s basically the theme of the book. We laugh, we tear our hair out, we cry, we sigh in wonder. A good silly book reminds us of all that.

Space Opera was inspired by an international music competition called Eurovision, where contestants are encouraged to be as outrageously fabulous as possible. I’m thinking Elton John on Acid at a Drag Queen fire sale with glitter explosions in the background (remember, this is the reality part). In the book, Humanity is called upon to prove itself sentient by performing a song of heartbreaking beauty and fabulousness in a musical competition on the other side of the universe.

Naturally, just telling the aliens that we’re sentient doesn’t work. Look at our history, at our now, at all the terrible things we’ve done and keep on doing. So what’s silly about that, you might ask (grimly, brow furrowed)? Nothing. What makes it silly is that we’re also capable of wonderful, fantastic things. The conflicted dichotomy of the human race is stunning. Paralyzing. Beautiful. Stupid. What can you do but laugh?

Valente has mastered the art of irrational creativity. Kudos. And her characters are intensely human, lovable, and relatable. My only nit with this book is that the ratio of narration to actual scenes is off, IMHO. I’d like to spend more time with the characters, and less time reading lengthy (although mostly hilarious) summaries. That aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with silly and heartfelt both in good measure. In her afterward, she pays homage to Douglas Adams, as is right. I believe Adams, the grand master of silly, would approve.

Even if your current project isn’t silly in the least, it is healthy to allow irrational creativity to flow now and again, to laugh at yourself and your agonizingly constructed sentences, to play at the page. Maybe you’re writing a murder/horror mystery wherein everyone dies. If you don’t allow yourself to be silly while writing something like that, watch out. You will become grim and furrowed. And I suspect that a touch of silliness will make your characters more relatable, your tragedy more heartfelt. As writers, it’s not only the readers we have to think about, but ourselves. To keep ourselves fresh, motivated, happy in our art, we need to breathe, and the best way to get fresh air into our brains and our heart is to laugh.

5 Ways to Put the Romance into Necromancy by Sarina Dorie

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome Sarina Dorie, creator of the popular series: Womby’s School for Wayward Witches.

 

5 Ways to Put the Romance into Necromancy—Writing Romance

 by Sarina Dorie

I have a background writing science fiction and fantasy. I am a member of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and the majority of what I write has some kind of speculative element. I also have a passion for romance. I’m a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America) and a lot of what I write has a romance plot or subplot. I am bored by stories that don’t include female characters and relationships of some kind. I love sci-fi but if it is all engines, laser guns, and starships blowing up, my eyes glaze over. That is just my personal preference. I know what I like to read and what I want to write.

Put the two genres together that I am passionate about, and we get paranormal romance—if the story contains vampires, werewolves, and witches in contemporary settings. When it has a werewolf but it isn’t contemporary, it might be fantasy romance or even science fiction romance if it is set in the future. Sometimes the combinations can be pretty eccentric. Because I like humor, eccentric works for me. But this is also coming from someone who has a short story titled “Putting the Romance Back into Necromancy,” and I have an urban fantasy romance titled “Reading, Writing and Necromancy,” which is part of my Womby’s School for Wayward Witches Series. These are funny horror or humorous urban fantasy romances that use both genres to their advantage.

If you are thinking about including romance in a story or writing a romance, consider a few things first:

1.Understand what romance is.The love story should be necessary to the plot. The characters need to have a HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) if it is considered romance. It is fine if it doesn’t, but if that is the case, it might be horror with There is a difference and readers have expectations when a book is marketed as a romance. Just because you are including a love story doesn’t make it a romance.

For example, someone told me I needed to see Me Before You because I would love it—because it was a romance and it was about a woman with unusual fashion tastes like me, apparently. I watched it, and I loved it, then I got to the end, and realized it wasn’t a romance. Then I hated it. But I didn’t really hate it. I actually like the movie a lot, but I went into it with the wrong expectation.

 

2. Find the heat level appropriate for the story. Not all romance has sex. The point of a sex scene in a well-written romance should be part of the plot and character arc. Just as a science fiction novel would be broken without the science, taking the love scenes/relationships out of a romance novel would break the plot. If the novel doesn’t need a sex scene or it is outside your comfort zone, you don’t need to include it.

There are many romance novels out there that do not have sex scenes on the page or implied. Some books end on the proposal, wedding, or a happy moment when the characters finally kiss and confess their feelings for each other. Young adult, sweet romance, and inspirational don’t include sex scenes. On the other end of the scale, erotica is more sex scenes than plot and can include a variety of kink like ménage, harem, or bondage.

 

3. Find the tropes for your genre. A trope is a plot device. All genres have them. It isn’t that a trope is inherently bad, although some readers hate particular ones while someone else loves that trope. Readers expect them. In romance, the trope is generally the element that helps the hero and heroine meet or keeps them apart. The thing that makes a trope work is subverting the readers expectations so that the writing feels fresh and original.

If you are writing a horror novel, mystery, historical, thriller, etc. my favorite tropes might not be the tropes you and your audience are drawn to. Figure out what works for you. How do you find tropes appropriate for your genre? (See article: Paranormal Romance and Fantasy Romance Tropes.)

 

 

4. Enjoy the process of research. If you are a writer, you probably enjoy reading. I know all of us writers say we are all too busy to read, but we need to do it to see good examples and bad examples. The guilty pleasure that makes my life more tolerable is audiobooks. I love reading, but I don’t always have time. It is a handy way for me to do research. I “read” books and analyze why I find it trite, boring, and lacking in sexual tension or why I am rooting for the characters. Is it the evocative language? Is it the way the author captures the senses? Is it the building tension between the characters? There is a lot of different kinds of romance—and love stories that are beautiful but are not the romance genre.

Find out what works for you and what doesn’t, whether it is style, language, heat level, or tropes. If you disdain the genre and the idea of including a happy ending, love scene, or relationships, ask yourself why you are punishing yourself by writing a romance. Maybe you really are wanting to write horror with romance elements.

I thought I was writing a slow-burn romance series when I started Womby’s School for Wayward Witches, but as I wrote more books, I realized the romance was not the central plot in every book. It was the B plot. Also, not every book had an HFN or HEA ending with the romance. Because I have done my research and I know my genre, I know what these books are and are not. I would call them urban fantasy mysteries with romance. I had a lot of fun writing them, and I think readers are enjoying reading them, so I am okay with them not being romance.

 

5. Practice—in whatever way makes sense to you. For me, practice is writing. Sometimes writing short stories or flash fiction can be a great way to exercise the mind and get out ideas. A couple years ago at a Romance Writers of America meeting I attended, one presenter talked about how she makes sexy storyboards of all the things to set the mood. At another meeting, a different presenter talked about all the positions she tries with her husband—then has to race away from bed to go write down all the positions it is humanly possible for people’s bodies to contort into. Whatever floats your boat, right?

Whether you are interested in including romance in your genre because it is what you like to read, you are interested in tapping into a different market, or it fits into the story you are writing naturally, I highly recommend checking out Romance Writers of America as a resource.

 

 

Sarina Dorie has sold over 150 short stories to markets like Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, Cosmos, and Abyss and Apex. Her stories and published novels have won humor contests and Romance Writer of America awards. She has over two dozen books available on Amazon including her steampunk romance series, The Memory Thief and her collections of short stories like Fairies, Robots and Unicorns—Oh My! are available on Amazon, along with her series Womby’s School for Wayward Witches.

You can find info about Sarina Dorie’s short stories and novels on her website:

www.sarinadorie.com

 

The best way to stay in contact with Sarina Dorie, hear about what she is writing, know when she has a new release, or books offered for free on Amazon is by signing up for her newsletter.

https://mailchi.mp/sarinadorie/authornewsletter