Tag Archives: writing in flow

Summer Is A-comin’ In…


Right out of a John Constable painting….

We are nearing that time of year that marks the summer solstice, also known as Midsummer’s Eve, and school’s out, the garden is up and running (if you have one), and you’d rather be outside than inside, even if it’s hot. The beach is much more important than doing something that resembles work.

Instead of working on something like a short story or a novel, now would be a good time to take something off the shelf that will make you a better writer.  Take a break.  Don’t be quite so intense and worried about getting it done. Give your characters a little rest. Do some sketching or shoot photos. Do something that will inspire a book cover or illustrate a story or poem.

‘Writing In Flow’ by Susan K. Perry is one of the books I have recommended strongly for anyone who wants to write, if only for the sake of writing. I’m going back to that instead of reading novels this summer, because it is meant to jar you loose from being stuck. Being stuck for something to say happens to everyone, and is not something to worry about.

Take some time this summer and into fall to follow one of Susan Perry’s suggestions:  open up to new experiences.

Standing on the porch in the middle of a cloudburst, taking in the scent of fresh rain and feeling the changes in the air while it’s going on, and after it’s done and the storm has moved on – these are physical sensations that you can put into the lives of your characters.

If you’re stuck, don’t worry about it. The flow will return. But if you feel compelled to write, then follow a new path. If you usually create prose, then try poetry instead, as in making up some silly children’s rhymes. If you write poetry, turn a poem into a one-paragraph story.

It’s less important what it is than that you do it.

 

Well, I thought Spring was here….


Bloodroot in blossom

…and I may have been right, looking at the calendar, but when the temperature drops from a very pleasant 72F to barely 50F overnight and you have to turn the furnace back on, then you start asking if winter is having trouble leaving us.

Yes it was very nice last week. I was happy to be out in the warm weather with no sweater or jacket, even happy to be able to scrape the mud off the soles of my hiking boots, and looking forward to more days like that, and then – WHAM!! Back we went to the low to mid-50s. And I see by looking at the weather map that it’s still snowing in many places.  That’s fine. I like wearing sweaters.

So that brings up attention to detail. It isn’t necessary to overwhelm anyone with details, but if you read detective novels, they are the people who notice the small things. Something out of place. A sweater not neatly folded but thrown on top of a pile of stuff. The dirt marks on a clean floor. Tiny bits of gravel where they shouldn’t be. Pens scattered instead of in a collecting cup.  Basically, show us the unexpected things.

All people have certain habits, things they do that they aren’t aware of but other people are. There are people who will complain if there is no rain and also if there is too much. Never ever happy. Too hot. Too cold. Too bitter. Too sweet.  Too many cars. Buses never on time. These are things that go into building characters, things that can be repeated until they are unconsciously recognized by your readers as habits or characteristics, such as a very sensitive sense of smell, that give your characters a small touch of reality.

There are other things. Butterflies, for instance, will flock to a place that provides salt and other minerals. In a mystery novel, this might be a clue to where the body is buried if there has been a lot of rain and the soil covering the corpse has been leaching away.

It isn’t necessary to cram the details in all at once. Distribute them through the story, and for Pete’s sake, make notes about it! It’s easy to lose track of who is who and what is what.

Have a nice Spring weekend, even if it rains!

 

 

Starting Fresh


white-throated-sparrow-nirvana-shot-1-12-2016

Here we go. It’s a brand new year. We have all kinds of things to think about. We’re always asked what resolutions we’ve made for the new year.

Well, how about if we don’t make resolutions, but instead, come up with a bunch of things we want to do this year? Why not some goals to work toward, instead of resolutions which will be ignored from Day One and never met? It’s much easier to have a list of goals to meet, tasks to complete, “things to do” this year, and scratch each one off as you go than it is to try to remember some ‘resolution’ you set for yourself and then cast aside.

So here are mine:

Shoot more pictures
Finish current novels – I have three I’m working on.
Write some more poetry – that’s one I let go but I still have that on my plate.
Get the confounded clutter out of my house
Cook a lot more new stuff, something like crepes with beef and mushrooms
Try one new dish each month. Just one should be enough. No, I don’t like squid. Tried it. Don’t like it. But I gave it a shot.
Read books by authors who are not in vogue any more. For instance, H.M. Tomlinson, a journalist who covered World War I, is a good reference for that period.

Keeping it simple makes it easier to get these things done, and when you’re done with one, you can scratch it off that list on the fridge door.

The bird in the photo is a white-throated sparrow. It’s not a rare bird, but it is rare in my area, because its habitat area is mostly the eastern side of the Appalachians. Glad I had the camera handy, charged and ready.

Happy New Year!!!

A Gift for the Coming Year


A long trail ahead of me...

A long trail ahead of me…

Well, by golly, I’ve been slipping again! My bad. No Christmas cookies for me!

But this is what happens when you get busy, working on things that do have importance to you, and finishing my current book projects is very important to me. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to take something from start to finish, and then go back and review it.

“Oh, but wait!” you say. “I have all these ideas and they get to a certain point and then nothing happens.”

I know. It happens to me all the time. I’ve spent untold hours coming up with ideas for stories, summaries, blurbs and titles, and wondering if they’d ever be finished. I have starts that stopped, and summaries that cry out for expansion into full-blown stories. Is there enough for a full-length book? Oh, who cares? It’s the thought that counts. The idea that came up on paper sits waiting in a dusty notebook, or an unsearched file on your hard drive, wondering if anyone cares about it enough to finish what you started. I knew somebody way back when who had a storage box full of notes and ideas and did nothing with them. In fact, she was so certain they weren’t worth the bother that she threw them away.

Come on, now! These are your babies, your brain’s offspring, your source of joy and pride and it does not matter one tiny bit that they’ve been sitting in a bin on a shelf in your coat closet for years or months, or just until you ‘have the time’.
Let me tell you something. The ‘time’ will never arrive on its own. The ‘babies’ will never become full-fledged, completed stories of any length by themselves. The offspring of your overactive imagination will spend eternity in a coffee shop, wondering if you are ever going to show up and get this show on the road.

They can’t live without your interference. This is how it works. If you can spare 20 minutes for a shower, a half hour to an hour at the gym, can’t you spare an hour and a half with one of those crazy ideas you wrote down on a note pad ten years ago?

I spent a good deal of time during my workaday life coming up with ideas for stories. I wrote down as many as I could on a pad of paper, and later typed them up on 3-hole punched paper, and kept everything in notebooks. When I moved twelve years ago, the volume of stuff I had put together as starters was huge and no, I did not throw out any of it. I simply kept it stored and here it is now, in my house, waiting in the storage boxes and notebooks it was stored in so long ago, waiting to be brought into existence. And I have all sorts of distractions to keep my attention off my ideas and stories and keep me from completing these things, but over the past summer, with an enormous distraction that turned into nothing at the end, I persevered and am moving ahead.

Because it’s Christmas, my gift to someone who thinks s/he has no time to do this kind of work is to say the exact opposite: you do have the time. You just think you don’t. The only thing standing in your way is you.

There are all sorts of books on how to do a good job of storytelling, and likewise, all sorts of books with exercises to nudge you along the writer’s path. But reaching the goal at the end of the path, completing the story, is something you have to do yourself.

Here’s how you do this:

1 – complete the story, period. Do not make corrections.
2 – print it out on 3-hole punched paper and store it in physical form in a 3-ring binder.
3 – put it away for several months.

On a cold, rainy day in the spring, when you don’t want to be outside, fix yourself a big pot of hot tea or coffee, get some cookies or other snacks, and reread what you wrote. Ignore the mistakes, just read it. If it still seems worth the time and effort it took, it’s a keeper. This is when you proofread and edit it, polish it, make the ‘mystery’ connections work, and decide whether or not to expand it to a lengthier form, such as a full-length novel, or keep it as a short story or novella. You may see the possibilities for a series of stories in it when you reread it after some time away from it.

I found that to be true for many of the summaries that I created a long time ago: they could be full-length novels as well as short stories.

It was up to me to complete them.

There is always something that will distract you. There is always someone who will be negative about what you’ve done. There is plenty of tremulous self-doubt floating through the air, enough to sink anyone into a Well of Gloom. These are people whose lives are limited by restaurant menus and coffee shop couches.

Writing is not about gaining fame and fortune. It’s about creating something out of whole cloth, floating moonbeams, and squeaky closet monsters. It’s your imagination at work, the part of you that wondered if you’d ever get to go to the Moon or find out that the guy who sells watermelons out of his pickup truck is really a philanthropist with a hobby that lets him meet people.

Now go on: get those ideas down on paper, filed on a jump drive, backed up on a terabyte peripheral drive, and printed and stored in a physically tangible notebook.

And have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, because a year from now, you may have a LOT of stuff done!

Storytelling ingredients… just like making cookies


If you’re human, you have a favorite dish.  Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s your comfort food, your go-to when you don’t want to be bothered with choosing, or what you remember the most often when you’re away from home and want something really good.  It may be simple and easy to fix, or complicated and time-consuming, but it’s the one thing you turn to when all other dishes fail.

This applies to creating stories, too. They have characters, places, narrative, beginnings, action, middles and endings.  Those are ingredients, and how you treat them determines how the story will proceed. You may have a favorite genre, such as steampunk or Regency romance or mystery. All have specific ingredients or qualities that make them part of a genre. You can make all these ingredients into something as complex as beef bourguignon (beef burgundy), or you can make your story as simple and familiar as mac and cheese.

I like making chocolate chip cookies.  I have the Tollhouse recipe memorized. I could make a batch in my sleep. But I have a secret ingredient that makes them more than just regular chocolate chip cookies. Well, I have two, but I’ll come to that.

The recipe itself is uncomplicated. The ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips.

But let’s dig into that list of ingredients. Instead of just brown sugar, I use dark brown sugar. Why? It has extra molasses, more than light brown sugar. More flavor. I use vanilla, a particular brand that seems to have a brighter flavor than regular vanilla. I use unbleached flour. The chocolate chips are heavier in cacao than the other chocolate chips, but they don’t cost any more than the others. I want some serious chocolate chip cookies, so I add a little more than just the usual ingredients.

There’s your story: a little more than just the usual ingredients.  You add bits and pieces of information here and there, like rich, dark chocolate chips scattered through cookie dough, that draw your readers into the story.  You describe neighborhoods and countryside and villages, cities and towns as if you’ve lived there half your life.  You know the people down the street and next door, because you invented them.

Oh, but wait! Your people don’t live on a street or in a neighborhood. They live on a large island with an inlet bay that nearly splits the island in two, and the two populated halves of the island have been fighting over fishing and sailing rights to that water body for longer than human memory.

The neighborhood and the island are the same thing as the cookie dough in my cookies. They hold the chocolate chips, vanilla, and sugars that enrich the story. They make it whole and believable.  You should be able to stand at the head of the inlet bay in the center of that island or in the middle of the park on the square in that neighborhood and give me, your reader, an idea of what it’s like to live there and who those other people are, just as you know the ingredients in your favorite recipe so well that you can recount them from memory.

Your cookbooks, to use a metaphor, are easy to find: the Chicago Manual of Style. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  The Oxford Dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus. Since there is a wealth of material available online for reference, you can search by subject matter. Better yet, you can go to the library and find even more stuff in the stacks.  Do not ignore the work of people you never heard of. They may add more than just exotic flavor to your stories.

If you’re still in school, there should be an English teacher somewhere who may give you extra credit for work you do outside of class and who may be able to push you into doing better work than you ever thought you could.

Now, with any recipe or any story, there are requirements you have to meet. Recipes require specific ingredients and specific methods. If you don’t follow those guides, the recipe fails.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to vary the recipe, but the first few times you use it, follow the instructions.  Get familiar with it, and then make the variations to suit yourself.

The same holds true of a story, whether it’s one page, a novella, or a full-length novel in a series. It has to have a start, middle, and ending. The characters really do need a conflict of some kind, something that needs resolution, and the ending should satisfy the needs of the characters. This is how stories work.  It does your reader no good to have wonderful character descriptions (midnight-dark 80% cacao chocolate chips) if they don’t do anything.  Where’s the conflict, or the problem, for the characters to solve? What’s the ending? What’s the argument?

If you have all the cookie dough ingredients standing by, including that bottle of real Madagascar bourbon vanilla, but you never get around to mixing them into cookie dough, you’ll never have a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  But you can mix the dough, refrigerate or freeze it, and come back to it later, and you just might find that setting it aside for a while gives you a better batch of cookies.

If you create a catalog of characters, put them to work.  If you can’t figure out where the story goes, that’s fine. Set it aside. Do something else and come back to the story later. But don’t throw out what you’ve already created.  Let it ferment, and see what happens to those characters. Give them something to do.

Oh, the two secret ingredients in my cookies?  The classic recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla.  I use two teaspoons of vanilla, plus the dark brown sugar instead of light brown.  Go ahead:  Hand me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and put me into the middle of the story.  Draw me in.

Just add a little more flavor.

 

Clearing the cobwebs….


Showy trilliums

Showy trilliums

Okay, no excuses. There are times when life simply gets in the way. It isn’t neglect that kept me away, I was actually cranking out copy for several books. Yes – several. And while it seems vainglorious to me to say “I busted my butt to get this done”, well, frankly, I did just that. I neglected my blog here unintentionally while I focused on my stories.

So I’ll give you all a pump-up about yourselves and what you do, if I can.

In fiction, any writer’s desire and responsiblity are to create and firmly establish the characters and events in those stories which he or she is creating for you, the readers, to enjoy.

I do know people who want desperately to write something – anything – and have a good start, but come to a grinding halt because they asked someone to read the starts they’ve made and are – well, disappointed, maybe even a little hurt, maybe even a teensy bit teary-eyed that the incomplete piece which they wrote, they labored over, they gave life to isn’t viewed as Pulitzer material. So, they quit before they even get a start.

Don’t do that.

If someone says ‘you got typos!’, deal with it. Fix them. Fix the punctuation mistakes. Get a spelling dictionary or find one online. Make yourself look as smart as you are. Most of the time, when people say ‘you got booboos’, it’s merely pointing out simple errors that you didn’t catch in your draft. No one is trying to hurt your feelings.

There are people who like to engage in flamewars toward everyone, because it makes them feel good about themselves. That is not the same thing as being told ‘you got typos’. Not remotely. It is just bad manners.

These are your steps in writing a piece of fiction.
1 – Decide if it’s a short/long story or a novel.
2 – Ask yourself if there is more than one story for this idea, i.e., can this become a series of stories?
3 – Are you serious enough to finish what you wrote, or are you just dabbling with ideas? If it is just ideas, keep them for later use.
4 – Write the first draft, set it aside, write a brief draft or even a long summary of another story, set it aside and go back to your first story.
5 – Make notes. Make a LOT of notes. Keep them with your story. Review them regularly. You’ll find your original idea has wandered off in a new direction.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that, not only has your story taken on a life and will of its own, but your original idea may show distinct signs of growing larger than you had thought it would, and may even start splitting into various parts on its own.

For example, that hot chick who cast her eye on the hero might just be a spy looking for easy prey. Not finding it, she just may ditch that resource and start looking again. In other words, the guy she thought was the ship’s engineer turns out to the the guy who serves baked beans in the mess line, and the only thing he’s good for is relieving the tension in her… uh, her shoulders. Yeah, that’s it! Her shoulders. Got it. So is she a spy? Or is she up to something else?

I posted the picture of the trilliums partly because it’s spring at long last, and partly because that wildflower has a brief period of above-ground existence, putting out a floral head to attract pollinators until the rhizomes at its roots have started to grow and it can split off into new plants. When it’s done for the season, it dies back and disappears to gestate underground until next spring.

Consider the trillium as an analogy to writing. You have great ideas. They need to grow into mature and complete stories. That dieback to prepare for next spring is the same thing that you do when you come up with an idea for a story. You make notes about it, you do some research on the subject, and you start the first draft.

The ideas are what you record and expand on with notes, research to support your storyline, and possibly discovering that maybe your subject really has not had much attention because everyone else is following a different trend. And this is why I say don’t ask someone to review a partially-written draft. The wrong words, a misunderstood comment, a snort of derisive laughter and ‘no one writes about this’ may stop you before you even get started.

Now, how will you know whether or not you can do this thing called writing unless you stop asking for permission to do it?

There is nothing wrong with establishing your own subject line of stories. People do it all the time. Have enough confidence in yourself to choose to follow your own path. You do not need permission to do that, any more than the trilliums need permission to poke their way above ground and blossom.

Well, what are you waiting for? You don’t need anyone’s permission to write!

A quick word


Wild asters in late autum

Wild asters in late autum

Without a ‘pop-up’ reminder any more, I lose track of time. I’m so embedded in finishing another short story that I almost let this slide. Naughty me.

Well, there are all sorts of excuses, but they’re just excuses for not posting something in this space. So I have to ask: is it better to be so busy that you forget the time of day and that you meant to fix a grilled cheese-with-ham sandwich for lunch because you worked right past lunchtime? Why is lunchtime a specific time of day? And for that matter, why can’t you have a cheeseburger for breakfast instead of cereal?

Having a schedule, as though you have appointments to keep, is not conducive to completing the story at hand, because sticking to a schedule requires that you divert your attention from what you’re doing. If you aren’t on a schedule or meeting a deadline for completing a project, why does anyone need a schedule? Why does anyone need to be on schedule to stop the creative flow and fix a sandwich at a specific time of day?

Schedules are self-limiting in and of themselves.

So what does it say about someone who not only can’t let go of that limitation, that self-imposed boundary of behavior, but also can’t simply go with the flow? Is there less satisfaction in saying “I finished that story!” than there is in saying “I wrote 22 pages today, and I will write another 30 tomorrow”?

I find myself staying up until the wee hours at times, for the sole purpose of making notes or writing up what happens between two characters, what they say and think and how they act, so that I can move that into a specific story. There’s no set time of day or night for this kind of thing. You just do it, because it crept into your consciousness and it needs to be recorded.

It’s easy enough to start something. Everyone can do that. But can you keep it going to its end? That is more important than keeping a schedule. The schedule looms over you like an annoying supervisor who expects you to produce XXX pages per day. That is not how creativity works.

Sometimes, you can produce a flow of words that are cranked out as if you were right there, watching things happen. That is stream of consciousness. Other times, you can hardly put two sentences together. This is normal. It happens to everyone. You’ll find yourself staring out the window at the snow swirling around the eaves of the house next door, while you wonder what in the world you should say next.

Forget schedules. Forget lists. Forget the rules of civilized culture. None of that applies to creative work. Just make copious notes, if you can’t think of anything else to do. Keep them in your journal and copy them to files specific to your stories. And don’t beat yourself up if you can’t write anything important. Just make your notes. The flow of words will come and go. Nothing to worry about.