Hello, Again

Hello.  My name is Dale. Or maybe I should say, Hello, again.

If you’re among our newer readers, you probably don’t know me.  And if you’re one of those readers who’s been with us a while, you’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten who I am.  Although I’m one of the founders of this site, I’ve all but disappeared over the last two years.

I’d like nothing more than to tell you that I haven’t been writing because of some grand event, like traveling the world, or that I’ve been so busy on some life-changing project at work that you’ll all be able to see on the news in the near future.  It would assuage my writer’s guilt greatly if I could point to a bout with cancer, or wax poetic about caring for a loved one who made a remarkable recovery.  But I can’t.

I’d like nothing more than to tell you that I have good reasons for my absence.  But all I have is excuses.  Or more accurately, one excuse.  It’s the same excuse I always have.

For the past two years I just didn’t feel like writing—and I didn’t force myself to do it.

I’ve never been good at making myself write–at least not when I lack the motivation to write.  If I have a story in my head, but lack the time, I can usually make myself sit down to take a few notes, and can often parlay that into a productive hour or two.  But in the last couple of years the ideas and the desire have been lacking.

I’d love to tell myself that I have reasons not to write.

I’ve been suffering from a form of chronic pain.  That’s a reason, right?  Well…I’ve known people with chronic pain who find a way.

What about my legitimate lack of time to write?  Hmmm…I seem to have found the time to watch TV and surf the web. So even though I haven’t had a lot of free time, it seems like I could have carved out an hour here and there.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

When it comes to not writing there are few reasons and there are many, many creative variations on the same, familiar excuse.

So what can I do?  The way I see it there are two choices.  I can give up and stop calling myself a writer (even with qualification) and give up my partial stake in this site I helped start.  Or I can stop accepting my own excuses, and make myself write.

In the past month I’ve started to make myself journal every day most days.  I’ve taken some notes on a couple of creative ideas that have been living in my head for far too long.  I’ve started to get my office into shape (this is a common stalling tactic, but in this case I’ve just bought a house and I can’t use my new office until it’s painted and unpacked).

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And I’ve started writing again.  For now it’s less creative stuff, like a few blog posts, and some technical writing.  But I’m using those to get back in the swing of putting thoughts on paper in a coherent way, so those muscles don’t cramp up as bad when I start to tackle something more creative and narrative.

So to sum up.  I’m Dale, and I have no excuses.

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Gone But Not Forgotten

OldBooksAlmost everything that I wrote more than fifteen years ago no longer exists.  The box containing my old notebooks and any school assignments I’d deemed worth saving disappeared during a cross country move.  The world is probably a better place because of this.

A few things do survive—certain papers or stories that for one reason or another were transcribed to computer and managed to survive the steady upgrade of computers over the years.  When I read these few survivors I cringe.

It’s not that my writing was bad, it was just….  It was unpolished, adjective-heavy, repetitive, sparse on meaningful description, and plot laden.  It was young.

But—and this is important—it was full of ideas, and it was full of excitement.

As an adult, I’m better at taking a random idea—i.e., a writing prompt—and with time and patience working that into something useful.  I’m better at revising a raw rough draft and molding it into something polished.  But what I’m missing now, what those early books were full of, were ideas that sprung completely from my own head—ideas that I was passionate about developing.

Sure, some of those ideas have hung around.  The ones I spent more time trying to tame were repeated enough that they are at least partially committed to memory.  But when I think back to the ideas I lost, I find myself wishing that I was able to revisit some of the crazier ideas with the honed skills I have now.

Do you still have the stories, notebooks or ideas you came up with in your past?  How far back?  Do you find them helpful, or do they just make you cringe?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments—or pop over to the Today’s Author Forum and talk about it with other writers.

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?

Uncovering Shakespeare

I love musical covers—where one artist performs, and often changes, another artist’s song.  I’ve taken a lot of gentle teasing over the years because of this, because many people see covers as a form of copying someone else, rather than an original work.  But for me, it’s always been about interpretation—it’s fascinating for me to see how someone can hear a song, internalize it, and fundamentally change it while still leaving it enough like the original that it’s recognizable.  For someone who’s always been fascinated by the creative process, the act of interpretation and working within the boundaries that entails is just as interesting as the act of creation.

My love of cover versions isn’t limited to music.  I find literary covers to be endlessly amusing.  Unlike musical covers, their literary equivalents are very often humorous—or downright farcical.  Though it’s also a common trope to retell a famous story from a new perspective, or create an unofficial prequel or sequel.

Of late, I’ve become enamored of several rather interesting covers of stories by William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a prime target for these literary interpretations.  I’m sure this stems from Shakespeare’s centuries-old theater tradition—a medium which practically revolves around interpretation.  My reading list, over the past months has a generous dose of the bard, done with irreverent tribute.  I thought I’d share a few fun ones with you.

The first entry in this list is rather traditional in its inspiration.  William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, was born when the author attended a modern interpretation of The Merry Wives of Windsor the same weekend he watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time.  There are actually three books, Star Wars, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return (this last one has yet to be released), and each of the three translates the movie not only into Shakespearean language, but also into a staged play format.  Perhaps these books are nothing more than a mash-up, but there’s something delightfully silly about hearing sci-fi speak retrograded to the times of Romeo and Juliet.  Literature it’s not, but for those steeped in Star Wars mythology it’s a delightful way to waste time.

Next on the list is a pair of books by perennial farcissist, Christopher Moore. Fool is the play King Lear retold from the point of view of the last character listed in the dramatis personae, the fool.  Moore takes this minor character from the original play, and creates, not a power behind the throne, but a character so grounded in absurdity that he is able to remain sane while those around him dissolve into madness.  It’s not Moore’s best book, by any stretch of imagination, but for someone whose list of works includes A Dirty Job, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, saying this one isn’t the best is not a knock.  The sequel, The Serpent of Venice (which I have only just begun to read) is a little more ambitious in its interpretation.  Not only does it use the same fool from King Lear, but amalgamates plot elements from Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The last entry is perhaps the one that takes the most liberties with Shakespeare, but also in an odd way stays the most true to the source material. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, that started life as a Kickstarter project. The ambitious, 700+ page paperback, lets you make the decisions as to how Hamlet turns out. North makes little to no effort to stay true to the language of Shakespeare, but does a whimsical and wonderful job of providing a new voice through which he narrates the farcical plot twists that litter the book. To be sure, with the correct choices, you can read the book with the same plot and timeline as Shakespeare’s text—although to do so you’ll have to put up with a little goading and mocking by the narrator. But it’s so much more fun to read the story as another character—hint: if you choose to play the king the book is very funny, but only 3-6 pages long. The magic of this book is uncovered if you are adventurous enough to play Ophelia. With Ophelia you have a bevy of increasingly non-traditional storyline—including spurning Hamlet, and pursuing a science-post-doc.

I know there are those of you who are horrified by all these recommendations that take extreme license with the immortal words of the bard, but for me who can’t seem to get enough cover versions, this variety is just the right spice for my summer reading.

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?