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

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.

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?

Nurture vs. Nature

url-18Where do your ideas come from? Do they spring into your head not-quite-fully formed (Nature), or are they the process of laborious trial, error, sweat and tears (Nurture)?

Are you the type to go to a coffee shop with a notebook and pen to brainstorm ideas for a new story? Can you look back over these old notebooks and see the idea develop over time–from crossed out, embarrassing fist lines and awkwardly incomplete characters until you can finally see the semblance of a summary paragraph?

Or are you the type–like me–who finds themselves jumping out of the shower (or pulling over the car…or at a friend’s house asking for scrap paper) to write something down before the fleeting thought vanishes again?

Before you answer, we both must acknowledge that most of us are probably some mix of the two extremes. However, for most of us, one of these processes is dominant over the other. For me, a programmer with a touch of OCD, working out an idea on paper can often devolve into a messy organic flowchart where I try to list all the possible branches and outcomes of an idea. I have much better results thinking about the subject matter or a character, and letting my subconscious mind work on whatever it wants to work on within the subject.

Sometimes this results in an interesting character–which I’ll sketch out on paper, so I don’t lose her voice–then it’s back to casually mulling over the plot, or setting, or something else about the story. Sometimes, the other parts of the story come first. Over the years this has let me base my stories on plot, characters, settings, themes, and once I even based a story on an idea for the structure of a story.

It’s not hard to find a bevy of articles espousing–or attacking–either of these methods. Just a couple days ago I read an article saying that those ideas which come to you in the shower, or while you are drifting off to sleep, aren’t actually worth writing down, because they’re just not good enough.

To most, if not all, of these opinions I say, “BAH!” What they nearly all fail to acknowledge is that everyone comes to their own ideas by a different process.

Those ideas that come to me while my mind is idling in the shower are good ideas. I know this because I’ve written them down. They are not, though, fully-formed, fleshed-out ideas. But I recognize them for what they are–part of the puzzle that will fit together to become my story.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to understand where your own ideas come from, and learn how to capture them on paper.

What about you? Where do your ideas come from?

Consequences

I ushered in 2014 by making myself a promise. I wanted to write. As part of that I wanted to revitalize my blog. My reasoning was—and still is—that if I’m working to update my blog on a regular basis, I’ll be writing more often, and this should bleed into other areas of writing. It’s the same idea that journaling everyday will help us write more.

To give myself a real consequence I said that if I didn’t make significant contributions to my blog, that I would delete it.

Well, it’s late March, and I haven’t changed my habits much. So I converted my self-hosted blog, to a free WordPress blog. I cancelled my webhosting, although I did keep my domain registration—and forwarded it to my free blog.

Hopefully, this will stop me from frittering away writing time, by maintaining, updating and tweaking the design of my blog. I’ll still spend a little time choosing the right template, and customizing the header….but after that, there’s not much else to tinker with unless I want to spend more money.

Hopefully this move, will convince me that I’m serious about my writing—and when I threaten myself with a consequence, I’ll follow through.

My Focus for 2014

My creative writing goal for last year was to review and regroup. I spent the year going through old notes, unfinished stories, snipets, ideas, and a lot of junk. The idea was to judge what was worth keeping and what could be permanently forgotten. Then I took all that and organized it so that I can get to it again.

And I did a pretty good job. I’m left with one story that is unfinished that I still feel is worth finishing, and a good-sized database full of characters, scenes, dialogue, and thoughts that I can both find and use, when I need them.

But all that was prelude to a different goal. Now that all that is out of the way, this year I’m going to focus on redeveloping the habit of writing. Being creative is hard. Especially if you don’t use it everyday. And I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing.

There are many excuses I could give for this, and some legitimate reasons, too. But there’s no point in spelling them out, because even if you have real reasons you’re not writing, if you have the time and energy to list them, they’ve become excuses.

So what are my goals?

  1. I will write everyday. It might be a blog post, or a journal entry. Maybe personal correspondence. And just maybe a little bit on a story.
  2. I won’t schedule any exceptions to #1, but I will allow myself 1 failure/week without guilt.
  3. Since I’m rebuilding a habit, I’m going to start small. January 1-January 15, 5 minutes/day minimum…January 16-January 31, 10 minutes/day minimum…and so on. So by the Ides of March my minimum will be 30 minutes per day.
  4. I will learn not to stop when I’m on a roll.

And to give myself the threat of consequence…if I don’t contribute, SIGNIFICANTLY, to this blog in 2014, I’m deleting it.

You may notice that these goals do not include writing X stories, or anything to that effect. In fact I do have a project, that I’ll be working on this year–Rob Diaz and I, will be compiling and editing a collection of short stories. But right now we’re in the early stages and haven’t developed a deadline. Keep an eye out for news.