A Common Enemy

writers_block_binder-p127099439763846099ffe6m_400Writer’s Block is a pain in the ass.

If you follow me on this blog, or on the other blog I contribute to–Today’s Author–you’ve doubtless noticed that I’ve been quiet lately.

This is not because I have no time to write.  It’s because every time I sit down to write, I spend all my time trying to wring even the smallest bit of creative thought from my atrophied pool of creative energy.

For the last couple of months I’ve been free writing by hand each morning, in an attempt to get the gears grinding.  But as often as not, I have resort to finding a writing prompt just to give me direction.  And it feel like busy work.  Sure I’m filling the pages, but it’s workaday drivel, and isn’t furthering any writing goal.

In my house I’m not the only writer.  My new wife enjoys writing, too, and last year she self-published her first YA Novel.  Lately, she’s stuck, too–not quite as stuck-neck-deep-in-the-mud as I’ve been, but she spends plenty of time spinning her wheels.

Last night she and I decided to try something new.  We’ve challenged each other to publish something new to our own blogs at least once each week.  It can be a thought, a rant, a product review, a book review, or–fingers crossed–something truly creative.

Why on our blogs, and not in our own notebooks?  We’re trying to keep it public so we can nag encourage each other when the other one is falling a little short.

So, here is the first of what I hope to be a renewed creative presence on the Interwebs.the-interwebs-20100930-084712

Dirty Little Reading Secret

aceRL9ggiAs bibliophiles, we’re often held to a higher standard when it comes to the novels we spend our time reading. Friends often assume that because I’m well read, and because I write, that I not only have good taste when it comes to the books I read, but also that I exercise that taste with every single book I read.

But the fact is, that like everyone else I like to unwind. Sometimes I like a book that isn’t challenging, has no deep meaning, no mysterious plot twists or characters that challenge my preconceptions.

But…I may not always carry that book quite as openly as most of the books I read.

So, tell me…what is your Dirty Little Reading Secret?

For me, I have an affinity for Star Wars novels. Specifically, the straight-to-paperback, starfighter-pilot-oriented series that have come out in recent years. The characters are one-dimensional, the plots are templates and the bad guys never quite die off. For me it’s the reading equivalent of television wrestling.

So…am I alone?

Storms and Drought

Weather and writing. More generally, weather and creativity. They are inextricably linked together through metaphor.

Throwing out ideas is a Brainstorm.

Ideas come in a flood—or sometimes a torrent.

Ideas come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning.

Weather seems a particularly apt analogy for creativity. They both seem out of our control—random even. While weather forecasting has given us more lead time to react to weather, we still have no actions to control the air and water around us. When ideas come we are similarly expected—and we’re generally happy—to simply weather the storm.

While there are tips and tricks to keep the creative stream flowing—write every day at the same time, use handwriting in a journal to warm up, etc—we have all been struck down by writers’ block from time to time.

There’s weather for that, too.

Ideas dry up.

A chronic lack of ideas is a drought—or somewhat less frequently, a depression.

If you’re stuck in a rut and can’t get out, you’re in the doldrums¹.

While not universal, the tendency to relate our creativity to natural phenomenon is certainly widespread—cutting across several languages, and not limited to the cultures that spread out from Europe.

This close metaphorical tie has an interesting side effect. With weather there is no shortage of terms for describing when weather goes wrong, yet there’s a dearth of terms for nice things like a pleasant, sunny day, with a short rain shower for good measure. Similarly, there are few elegant ways to describe the condition of having just the right balance between new ideas and the time to explore those ideas.

This is all scene setting for the situation I’ve found myself in. While I’m not swimming in free time, I do have some. But when I sit down to write, I find myself tilling the dry, crumbly ground for even the hint of an idea.

 


 

¹ Doldrums refers to those parts of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans affected by a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. The doldrums are noted for calm periods when the winds disappear altogether, trapping sail-powered boats for periods of days or weeks (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

Is There Power in Boredom?

ScreenShot7796When was the last time you were bored? Truly bored. Not a time when you wish you were doing something more interesting, but where your mind was almost completely unoccupied.

I’ll bet it’s a lot less common than it used to be. Especially if you have a smartphone.

And that might just be a problem. Some new research, suggests that boredom may be a critical component to creativity.

Looking back through my own life, there is certainly some anecdotal evidence to support the theory. The most creative places for me have always included the shower and driving alone in the car–places practically synonymous with boredom. And as I’ve gotten older, taken on more responsibility, and technology has become more ubiquitous, boredom is more and more rare.

If I’m in line waiting for the next cashier, I’m as likely to check my email as I am to let my mind wander. And that wandering mind is important in being a writer. Not only does it help you come up with ideas, plot and dialogue. But people watching and unconsciously soaking in the environment around you is critical in making your world and writing more real.

So…what to do?

1. Follow the link above and you can find out how to participate in the Bored and Brilliant challenge, taking place during the first week of February. All you’ll do is keep track of the time you spend on your phone over the course of that week. The data is going into a larger study about boredom and creativity.

2. Let yourself be bored, not just for a day, but as a reasonable part of your routine, and see if it has any affect on your creative soul.

Looking for Balance

BalanceI’m not sure I’ve ever heard NaNoWriMo (in the running for the clumsiest acronym ever) spoken aloud. But each year from October 1 through December 7 (or so) it’s nearly impossible to be part of the online writing community without wading, hip-deep, into the NaNo fray.

Will you or won’t you? Does it work, or is it just a gimmick?

I’m a bit of a NaNo moderate. I see the appeal, and I see the usefulness, but I’ve never felt it’s the right tool for me. I’ve never been able to focus on word counts as a way of motivation. Rather, I’m the type to play around with different sparks of inspiration, accepting the fact that some days I’ll write 11 words and some days I’ll write 11,000. I’ve done NaNo 3 times, officially, and won all 3 (unless you don’t count the time where I did 4 small projects to make up my 50k. And I’ve done smaller scale NaNo once or twice–where I set a smaller goal, and don’t officially participate.

I’ve never used much of what I’ve written, but the Decembers that have followed my NaNos have been very productive. But then, that’s what Nano’s about…finding what works for you to get yourself writing.

This year, I’ve not yet decided if I’ll participate at all. I have a rather big event happening on NaNoWriMo Eve, and while I won’t say what that event is, I’ll be travelling for the first 9 days of NaNo on a vacation that traditionally comes right after this event. Combine that with the normal November holidays, and I’ll lose half the month. So 50k, is nothing more than a dream.

And to any of you, looking at your crowded November calendar, who say, There is just no way

That’s OK!

Personally I’ve never heard or felt any peer pressure to join NaNo, but I’ve always felt self-pressure. Like I’m selling out my writing dreams if I don’t do it. Even as I write this post I feel like I’m making excuses.

Trust me–down that path, madness lies.

So I bargain with myself. When I return from vacation, I will try to write 25k through November. But I will not sign up, and I will not obsessively check my word counts.

I also won’t beat myself up for not joining. And if I miss my goal, I won’t beat myself up over that, either.

No NaNoWriMo is OK.

There’s always December.

Characters Who Push Back

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to conclude that most writers, generally think of characters as dynamic beings. While I won’t itemize past posts you won’t have trouble finding opinions on this very blog about how certain characters are easily led, while others are uncooperative. And advice abounds about interviewing characters to challenge them in order to get at their inner core. Few authors seem to have complaints with their scenes or plots not cooperating, but it’s a common feeling that particular characters are just plain uncooperative.

I find this concept fascinating. On some level I know that it’s a sign that you have created a good character. Only well-formed characters are rounded enough to develop their own personality…their own energy…their own will.

Put them in the right situation and the scene will zip along, because you don’t have to worry about making them act the way you want them to. Instead, they take on a life of their own and all you have to do is chronicle what they’re doing. But put these characters in a situation they wouldn’t allow themselves in, or try to get them to act in a way they wouldn’t and they will fight with all their non-corporeal strength.

Being in this dilemma, also says something good about you–the writer. Think back–maybe a few months–maybe many years–and there was a time where your characters blithely did your bidding. They never fought back or threw up roadblocks. But now, the reader in you has stepped up and started checking your work before it’s even done. The reader inside you is saying, No, that’s not good enough. You can do better.

If you’ve a character of this quality, it’s likely that you’ve connected with her on some level. If you are lucky or skilled enough to create a character with this kind of spark—with a life of their own—you do whatever you can to keep them intact and honest. Scenes, plots, descriptions and whatnot are a whole lot easier to come by than a compelling character.

Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?