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-

 

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.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Why is Writing Fiction so Difficult?

by Matthew Lowes

Years ago I taught a creative writing course, and I began the first class by writing a mathematical equation on the board. I suggested that the great difficulties of writing fiction could be understood through this equation. It was partly just a way to shock students into thinking about and seeing something in a new way. But the equation itself was a result of my own inquiry into the question: why is writing fiction so difficult?

At first consideration, it doesn’t seem like it should be. A friend of mine once remarked when I complained about some writing difficulty: “What’s the problem? Just make something up.” And indeed, in some sense this is good advice. He was only joking, but his comment actually helped solve my problem. When all is said and done, we are just making up stories. But like any good lie, you would like it to be believable … and like any good truth, you would like it have an impact. And to do this, you have to keep your story straight.

A piece of fiction may start with a character, a setting, an event, an image, or any number of things or aspects of these things. The story then builds with another thing and another thing and all the interactions and connections of these various elements. For the sake of argument, let’s call each one of these things, be it big or small, a story point.

The first one is easy. Take anything — the queen of a small island that is sinking into the sea … a young artist sent to the front lines of long and futile war … an ancient city on the edge of the desert … a fleeting glimpse into a stranger’s eyes — or just make something up. Like flashes from half-remembered dreams, these points bubble up from the subconscious, and a thousand stories begin to form.

One point, however, does not a story make. You have to add another point and another and another. And not only do the accumulation of points have to build tension and conflict, but they also all have to somehow exist harmoniously with each other. Each point that you add forms another connection, not only with the previous point, but with all previous points. And it turns out you can express this with an equation.

What this shows (I think … I worked this out with some help many years ago) is that for each new point added, the number of connections increases by a number equal to all the previous points. So with two points you have one connection; with three you have three; with four you have six; with seven you have twenty-one; and so on. By the time you reach fifteen points there are over a hundred individual connections. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that the number of connections increases exponentially as you add more points.

Furthermore, this equation is only accounting for single direct connections to all other story points. If you want to count all possible connections through other story points, the numbers get truly astronomical — mind boggling! But you get the idea. There’s a lot to keep straight as you move forward. Luckily, it seems our minds are somewhat tuned to do this narrative processing work. Nevertheless, in any given story, and especially a novel, there’s a lot to keep track of.

And that’s just the telling a good lie part. If you want to include the good truth part, we’re going to have to add another dimension — a dimension composed of layers, consisting of all these same points on the level of theme, voice, writing, metaphor, character change, plot structure, mythic underpinnings, and so on and so forth, up to and including the ineffable.

That’s why writing fiction is so difficult.

From Games to Fiction

by Matthew Lowes

The history of fiction inspired by games goes back at least to the 1970s when the first Dungeons & Dragons inspired novels were released. If we count gladiatorial games we might push this back to the Roman era. And if we count the “game of life” we can push it back to dawn of humanity and the very origins of story telling. In any case, there are enough examples, both good and bad, to discuss some of the issues involved with writing a story inspired by a game.

When I first designed the first Dungeon Solitaire card game, I couldn’t have foreseen the success we would have with the expanded Labyrinth of Souls game. And when that game launched, I couldn’t have foreseen that there would soon be a series of Labyrinth of Souls novels. When that opportunity arose, thanks largely to writer Elizabeth Engstrom and writer & publisher Christina Lay, I felt strongly that there were some game-inspired fiction pitfalls that we should avoid.

Games with a narrative element, like Dungeon Solitaire, lend themselves to fiction because the game itself is designed to generate narratives. Once involved with the game, the mind is already spinning stories. However, game narratives and fiction narratives have some key differences. And as a writer of fiction engaging with game-related material, one should be clear about this.

Game narratives are generated through game-play. They are generally open ended, often meandering, and sometimes surprisingly random or short. Dungeon Solitaire is a good example. The game is a kind of hero’s journey, and can generate some classically structured narratives. But it is also possible to die on the first turn, or to lose the dragon-battle or get lost forever, right where the classic story would end in victory. In a game, that’s all part of the fun. What’s going to happen is really unknown, and like life, there is an element of randomness to the outcomes.

Good fiction, on the other hand, is always a kind of optimized or archetypal narrative. Take thousands of games played, or thousands of lives lived, and artfully choose from them the most satisfying and illuminating narrative structures and elements. That’s what fiction does. It is a kind of distillation of the game or life narrative into its most essential and moving forms. No book randomly ends after the first chapter. And no good book sets up one ending and then delivers a completely different one. The archetypal narrative forms, like the gods, must somehow be appeased for the beauty of fiction to flourish.

   

With all this in mind, I wanted the Labyrinth of Souls novels to be good fiction first and foremost. We had a lineup of incredibly talented fiction writers and they had to be free to do what they do best. The idea of the Labyrinth was broad enough to encompass a broad range of stories, without limiting authors to any predetermined setting or time period. And that’s one of the things I find so exciting about the novels so far. Although they all involve a journey into an underworld labyrinth of some sort, each one is entirely unique.

In creating something inspired by something else, we are still creating something new. So when writing fiction inspired by a game, it is primarily important to fulfill all the requirements of good fiction. Evoking the game in some way is necessary, of course, but only of secondary importance. Any constraining requirements should be kept to a minimum. For inspiration reaches its greatest potential when it happens with the greatest liberty to explore one’s own ideas.


You can learn more about Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and download the free PDF of Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings at matthewlowes.com. Discover Labyrinth of Souls fiction titles and follow new releases at shadowspinnerspress.com.

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

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