Making Habits

I’m mucking out old files. This includes old stories, really bad poems, and sheafs of paper from writing workshops. A little over six years ago I spent my evenings and weekends enmeshed in writing in some form – writing stories, writing reviews of other novice’s stories.

In a short version of things I’ve written before: six years ago I deliberately chose to set creative writing aside to go back to school, but then I also had a baby, making summers just as fraught and exhausting as fall-winter-spring, despite the lack of required reading and academic writing. All and any time to write was sucked up under the heading “Life”. He’s bigger now, not so all-consuming, yet – as you’ve seen – I still struggle to write. In the school semester I’m just too busy. Now, in summer, I still am not writing in the way that I used to. I seem to be out of the habit.

(Not that I’m losing spark or ignoring writing. I have stories and poems developing – eventually I will finish them. I wrote a post about my submissions process. It’s finished; you will never read it. Be grateful.)

Cleaning out my old files leads me, of course, to reviewing all the things I did in the years before my writing time became focused and efficient1. I thought I’d share the ways I’ve approached writing over the years, things that once helped me define and develop my habits. These are by no means all the ways to establish writing habits, simply the ones I’ve done, successfully and not.

Project-based. Some writers work best when they take the project they are interested in and break it down in stages to work on. For a novel, this might be spending week 1 outlining, week 2 writing character interviews/spec sheets, week X-X drafting, etc. Essentially, each writing session begins and ends with a very specific task that relates to the project. I’ve done this, but for me it’s really only effective on academic writing. (And even there I skip outlining.) In creative work I’ve learned I’m a drafter. I can do all the character development pages in the world, but when I sit down to write the story is where I learn who the characters are and what they want.

Spontaneous. The when inspiration hits then write method. It’s fun, exciting, and – to be honest – completely unhelpful with instilling a writing habit. Inspiration sputters out as quick as it ignites. Rather like an inexpertly lit campfire, isn’t it? I’ve tried this method, of course; but find I want to be the expert, the one who keeps the flames going. I don’t tell inspiration to take flaming lessons, but do tell it to have patience.

Timed write. That’s truthfully how this post began.2 The last post I wrote was by the bits-n-pieces method, which started spontaneous then became forced. Again, you will never read that one and you are happier for it.
Timed write goes a couple ways. It can be a short, intense writing session in which you set a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Anything. Everything. Quickly. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the internal editor and loosen up the creative unconscious. Yet I tend to use it more along the in-class essay way. I take myself away from home, pick a topic, set a chunk of time—½ hour or an hour—and write about that topic. Even if the writing’s not terribly focused at first, I have long enough to free-write until I find the heart of the topic. At the end of the chunk of time, I type it into my computer (if I was writing on notebook paper) and edit down to the important points. When it comes to short stories, this method has been doing jack for me

“Morning pages.” I don’t remember which writer advanced this, though one of our editors may remember. Essentially, it’s a first-thing in the writing period technique in which the writer sets down everything and anything that comes to mind for 3 pages. Like timed write, it’s a way to clear out the mental clutter in order to allow the creative subconscious room to stretch. The sweet thing about it is you can do this while a kid is running around the house and jumping on you. It might be a bit less effective that way though.

Writing classes. I work well – really well – with a deadline. I found myself most productive when I took a writing class that required three stories in three months. Of course, I had time to write three of my own and review many other stories from classmates. But also as a class, the time needed to do the work was now psychologically just as important and the time needed to do the dishes / laundry, etc.

What would you add? What have you tried, successfully or not?


 

1meaning that when I sat down to write, I wrote; I made progress on the project I intended to make progress on; I completed drafts. In no way does “focused and efficient” mean one sitting completed a draft, or that a draft was a finished piece.
2It’s been slightly less than one hour since I sat down. Technically, I could keep on writing, but all the didn’t-do’s are creeping back into my brain. Timed writes, I find, push them out for the period of time I declared I get to write. That said, it has a serious flaw in habit-building. It’s impossible to do when you don’t know if you will have ½ hour before the family wakes up. Not to mention, in my house, if I wake up at 5:30 in order to write, my son – if not both son and husband — is up and active 2 minutes after I get my thoughts in order.

Goals, Realities, and a Coffee Comfort Contradiction

January passed a mere 5 months and eons of seconds ago. Somehow it’s the sensation of eons that stick. Way back in January your dedicated contributors posted some thoughts about goals. February passed. March. April. May remains, for a bare week more. This is my first post in eons.

I enter every school semester intending to write at least once a month. It feels like a realistic goal. One piece of something—probably a Today’s Author post—once a month. As I end every school semester I realize I wrote less than the semester before and I acknowledge to myself that I defined my goals before I understood the realities of my schedule.

A friend recently commented that my creative self must be screaming. Yes. Oh, yes. And at times—not too often, but occasionally—it screams itself into an outright tantrum that would make a 2 year old take notes. It’s oddly self-defeating, as the internal monologue of “when do I get time for MEEEE” steals the very time and energy so necessary to the creative process.

During this school year I ran into this. I found myself thinking, in the stuttering fashion of the often-interrupted, something along the lines of “I’ll have some coffee while I grade this, then when I get to the end I’ll still have energy to write!” Or, even less realistic during a grading and planning intensive semester, “Coffee now will be smart, then I’ll still be alert enough to write while the kid is falling asleep.” Then I’d drink more coffee, grade furiously, get within one or two assignments, and have to pick the boy up from school or go in and assure him there were no monsters, no real monsters, and wait in his room, twitching—not to get back to writing the monsters away, but to the grading so there was space in my head for monsters to even lurk.

It finally struck me one day, reaching for the dregs from the coffee pot after a short bout of yard work, what a contradiction a strong relationship to coffee can be.

When my son was little, and a determined non-sleeper, coffee was the fake energy I pulled from throughout the morning. He sleeps now, mostly. Yet still I look forward to that first cup, and still I pull the dregs from the pot hours later. And still I expect that humble little cup of darkness to produce miracles.

Here’s the contradiction: it’s a stimulant. It keeps the brain awake even when the brain would like to saunter off into deconstruction mode. Yet drink too much of it and I become grumpy, jumpy, and fidgety – all behaviors that doom me creatively. Then I become tired, yet unable to sleep.

Miracles do occur, by the way. I wrote a poem during the semester. It remains handwritten; I think I know which notebook I jotted it in. Still, I wrote a poem, in the early evening, while my husband read books to our son in the other room, on a day I left the coffee pot behind at 7 am, and taught and graded, and ran errands, and generally juggled the dishes of daily life. The secret to miracles, it turns out, is a peaceful interlude.

Sitting in my son’s room waiting for him to fall asleep doesn’t appear to count, by the way. My creative side flatly refuses to see it as time to myself.

Sometimes I find my goals lay themselves out before me, stepping stones through the chaotic garden of thought. The first stepping stone is to rid myself of my delusions – such as coffee’s usefulness in creating interludes. The next is to find, within the realities of my life, the consistent moments where I am my own person, one where the monikers of “mother”, “wife”, “instructor” or even “woman” do not exist, or at least do not take precedence. In other words, I intend to find and to create peaceful interludes. To do so requires I change, not my space, not the realities of my daily life, but my expectations of my space.

A friend once told me—a writer and instructor like me but with far more experience in both—that summer was his time to reflect and regenerate. Summer has begun for me and so has creative regeneration. I’ll share my writing reflections here this summer.

To Hell With Pragmatism

Pragmatism, that sleazy little fellow, tells me to get the word lists done, get the dishes done, create a shopping list – otherwise I’ll be scrapping together a dinner that only makes a nod toward healthy during a time I can actually make something from scratch.  Pragmatism says I’ll regret it if I’m not getting ready for what will be a very hectic, stressful semester. To which I say–.  Okay, that might be a little too rude.

But when is a writer supposed to write if not now?  Now.  Before the kids come home; while the coffee is brewing; while pulling over the side of the road enroute to work; while making dinner (or instead of it)…  Now.   Because otherwise, when?

Pragmatism is making snippy remarks about the late nights and stress headaches I’ll have in a few weeks because I didn’t put in a few hours right now.  But I’ll have those anyway.  It’s winter break, when I don’t have a running conversation with my other alter-ego about which students to push, which to check in on, which assignments need to be discussed and which can be ignored.  There’s no room for writing—not even the passing nod to the pragmatic kind like this post—during all that internal nattering.

Don’t you find it strange that when we’re in school we are expected to get creative about time and make sure our homework gets done, but when we are out of school we don’t keep the same expectations about our writing.?  Something – I’ll lay money on it—we all feel is much more rewarding and worthwhile than the class for which we blew off laundry for a week so we could work on a paper.

What will you do to write?

The Gift of Gab

The gift of gab – something I feel I have in spades; something I feel I will never discover.  I sail smoothly through one conversation about Christmas gifts and sink in the calm waters of chat about Christmas dinner.   The holiday season always hits me with contemplations of how we humans learn to interact. And how easy it is to miss the mark in routine exchanges.

Mother-in-law:  You’re looking quite nice today.

Me:  Yeh, I have to do laundry.

It turns out that typical human interactions depend on a variety of factors (isn’t that just typical.)  It depends on expectations – what each person in the interaction is expecting from the interaction.  It depends on circumstance, on what each person is doing or about to do.   It depends on each person’s experience in similar conversations.

You’re not reading this for a sociology lesson; I get it.  This applies to writing, and very much so.   Back to laundry.   Leaving that particular bit of dialogue alone could be fun.

Pop quiz:  What kind of tone is the character “me” using?

Answer:  Rueful, I bet, though, every person reading this answered something completely different.  Because our interactions depend on a variety of things, like expectation and experience, none of which is provided in that bit of dialogue, forcing you to rely on personal experience.

As a reader, I like a bit more than pure dialogue, though.   Yet I feel we often go overboard one way or the other – we provide way too much for our purposes, or we give too little information.

I just think we, as developing writers, need to consider how we approach providing information.   I think we need to play with it a little bit, experiment with our particular gift of gab and dabble in others.

Neither way is bad, of course.  Actually both have their merits.   Both have their problems.  Too little information and our readers will misinterpret something vital.   Too much information and it’s easy to get lost in the details.

A reader, looking at my dialogue above, should probably know that I was dropping my baby off at his grandmother’s house, that this was a regular visit.   Readers may or may not know that having a baby with you probably quadruples the chance that you’ll get something on your clothes.   And it’s guaranteed to be something you want off your clothes immediately but have no option but to ignore – possibly until laundry day.  Frankly, readers can figure that part out for themselves, or not.

It would be very pertinent for a reader to know that this person is a frequent social stumbler – which would be the point of including a scene like this, and considering how much of all the expectations / experiences / circumstances surrounding the conversation is important to know in this instance.

It’s worth consideration.   After all, every conversation about Chanukah presents or holiday movies, no matter how mundane, are the patterns upon which our friends and colleagues learn our personalities.  We learn about each other from them, and about ourselves.  Why wouldn’t it be the same for our characters?

Ready, Set, NANO!

Despite the flagrant title, I will not be doing a novel in November.  Likely, I will never be participating in this during the official month.  But, as you read,  I did do it last July.   I loved it.  I hope you do it to – if not now, this month, then soon.  A quick overview of things that helped me:

1.  Keeping my focus on my goal.

I didn’t participate to write a complete novel.  I participated to 1) give myself a kick in the ahem, to write while I knew I had the chance, and 2) to achieve a challenging word goal during a short period of time.

Two things I think were especially key in my goal-setting.  My goal was challenging, but ultimately realistic.  Meaning that it was hard, but I knew it was at least possible.  Doing 20,000 words in July would have been too easy, because it was summer and that (and general life stuff that comes up with a young one) was my only priority.  I had to push myself.  On the other hand, even imagining 20,000 words written this month or next is completely hysterical.  I came up with a great –and I mean GREAT—opening to a story last week.  Didn’t have time to write it down, and by noon it didn’t matter.  I couldn’t remember anything past what I’ve shared here.  Can almost imagine what trying to write 20,000 words next moth would be like:

Day one:  (types “day one”…….. 10 minutes later types “she said she didn’t do it”….10 minutes later goes to bed convinced she should be locked up because she’s clearly a walking zombie, having typed 6 words in 20 minutes.)

2.  Beginning with a clear outline, which I had not a whit of hesitation or guilt in breaking.

I was surprised at the end that I had kept so closely to my original concept.  Yet, I also created a character who wasn’t at all in my original concept.  He showed up on day three and became one of the major players.  That was the character who became the love interest.  The original love interest was the husband – and yet that relationship remained as originally conceived despite this new character.  Yet another character, the son, whose viewpoint I introduced on day two when I was stuck on what to do with my main viewpoint character, got shuffled neatly away into another colony about halfway through the month because he turned out to be unnecessary.

3.  KISS it

You’d think this would refer to the introduced, and unexpected, love interest.  But, no.  Much as it does help to know that soon you get to write a candy scene–the kind that replays itself over and over in your head because it’s so fun.  KISS actually is a mnemonic: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Which means that I kept my outlines / concept really simple.  Not so simple that nothing happened, but so simple that when something new came to me I could easily write it in.  To my mind, that’s what really got me through.  It stayed fun because if it wasn’t working, I could just switch viewpoints, kill a character, have her kiss the guy, and  meet my word deadline while carrying on with the story.

I am extremely excited for you, and envious that I won’t be joining you.  I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to figure out when to write this simple post.  (Sadly, it took a weekend trip to my mother’s, which includes a glass of too-strong wine and, more importantly perhaps, no internet connection.  I can’t get my grading done, and she’s entertaining my child.  Ergo, it’s acceptable to write.) Have fun, let me know if you’re victorious.   I’ll celebrate with you, then find the wine my mother shared with me for a solo sulk fest.

Shake things up: change the viewpoint

A few months ago a friend wrote a dismissive blog post about The Great Gatsby.    Now whether you like the book or not – and if you haven’t read it as an adult, I think the odds are stacked to not like it—the fact that, even taking out the critics and the teachers, many generations of readers absolutely love it says it must be a compelling book in some way.  Personally, I like it.  I find it beautifully written, compelling, and remarkably easy to read despite being written when my great-grandmother was a young woman.  Sometimes I think I like it because it was written so long ago.  The author uses techniques that have fallen by the wayside for the most part.   And I suspect that may be what my friend didn’t like.  I think she didn’t like the viewpoint.

A review of what we typically think when viewpoint is mentioned

First Person The story (or part of it) is told from the direct point of view of a character.  This is the point of view I find myself most comfortable with as it’s how I “see” the story.  It is also a very powerful point of view in certain stories.  In Gone Girl, it’s used brilliantly.  The intimacy created between reader and the two character encourages – begs us – to go beyond understanding their motives and outright judge them.Unfortunately, it’s become the default point of view in some genres.  I know it is in fantasy, at any rate; I would not be surprised if it is also the default in romance, mystery, and chick lit.  It’s used because it’s easy to connect with, not necessarily because it’s best for the story.
Third Person, Limited The story is told as if we are watching the character through a window (or tv screen.)  The information revealed is restricted, like first person, to what the character knows, or even to what the character does and says.  This limitation can also be very engaging. Since we don’t “hear” what the character is thinking, we interpret his/her actions before the actual motivation reveals itself.
Third Person, Omniscient The story is told outside of the character, but without restriction to what information is shared.  It sounds so freeing when stated like this, but I’ve never found it so.  The author has to cherry pick information to tell the story, otherwise the narrative wanders and has the potential to lose focus.  Anne Tyler opens Saint Maybe this way.  She introduces us to the family from the neighborhood’s perspective before spiraling slowly into direct contact with the main characters. Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with society’s general consensus about marriage and single men then introduces us to the Bennet family and their situation.  Still, it is the point of view I struggle with the most, both as a writer and a reader.  Hard sci-fi with an omniscient point of view loses me completely because it focuses on broader events rather than events focused within a limited character set I’ve become intimately involved with as a reader.

Keep in mind, I read a lot of plot-oriented novels and the general comments reflect that.  But, really, this was all meant as a refresher, to establish, as we already know, that each has strengths and weakness.  It’s also to clear the air, to show you what I don’t mean when I say this:

Changing the point of view changes how much we see in the story.  Changing the story’s viewpoint changes the story.

What I mean when I say viewpoint

For the purposes of this post, I’m making a distinction between point of view, by which I mean first person narrative, etc., and viewpoint, by which I mean the character we see the story through.

Back to Jane Austen…  Although it begins third person omniscient point of view, Pride and Prejudice comes to us through Eliza Bennet’s viewpoint.  We see the story of her family and falling in love with Mr. Darcy through her understanding of it.  We become intimate with the Bennet family, if not as deeply, personally intimate as we do with the husband and wife (the first-person viewpoint characters) in Gone Girl.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a first person point of view but the viewpoint is from a person only peripherally involved, at least at first, with the titular (and therefore focal) character.  We become drawn into the story of Gatsby’s great love because Nick, the narrator, becomes drawn into it.  We never become intimate with Gatsby, we are forever at a remove from him, trying to puzzle him out while Nick does the same.   I think this is what turns off some readers, but it’s what I find interesting about the book.  It makes Gatsby a romanticized, tragic-hero sort of character.  We are introduced to him when he’s the celebrity of the moment, and we come to know him as he falls from grace.

This post isn’t about Gatsby at all, of course; it’s the use of viewpoint.  Or perhaps the overuse.

I think that we are so used to the main players of the story being the main characters of the novel that we write it automatically, without critically considering what angles the story could come from and how that helps or hurts the story.  We’ve forgotten, for the most part anyway, that there’s more to viewpoint than first-person, third-person, limited, omniscient.  And even as each point of view brings advantages and disadvantages to the story, so does each character’s viewpoint.

So here’s a challenge for you, and this is for fun:

Consider an in-progress story or a completed story, something you have a solid understanding of the characters.  Now think about what the story – the same players, events, even using the same point of view – looks like from the viewpoint of another character. Now see it from a character who wasn’t in the room.  What about viewed from the viewpoint of the table or the couch cushion?  Discuss.

Personal Writing Challenge: fait accompli

In June I decided to write a novel in the month of July. That’s 50,000 words in 31 days. Most of you reading know I don’t – er, haven’t – written 50,000 non-school-related words in 365 days.

I did it. Over 52,000 words done by July 31st.

As with all writing, goals, or challenges, some reflection is necessary to put it in perspective. This isn’t a very pretty post. My language is flat. In our writerly varlance, I’m all tell, no show. But I wanted to share my reflections with you so you can take from it what you will.

Goals & Pragmatics

50,000 words in a month breaks out to about 1,600 words a day. I had an evening once, way back when I was a night person, when I did a happy dance at 800 words. The first week of July, 800 words was a – ahem – miracle. My goal, to get this done, was 1600 words a day. I thought between the hour in the morning and the time in the evening that it was very doable, if not easy. Not easy comes because I’m a pick-it-apart writer. I overthink everything.  So writing in the evening was my intention. The reality…evenings were my worst time for writing, despite my child crashing into sleep nice and early. On a good night I got 800 words (happy dance).

Clearly, I reevaluated.

Personal Space

By “personal space” I mean not only the physical space but also the functional time.  I was really behind on where I thought I’d be, word wise, early in the second week. Add in my husband’s random schedule (it’s his job, not a slam on him), and my son’s random wake-up schedule, and it was a mess.

I’ve recently read an article on great female writers with children. The phrase that came up over again, and I believe was part of the title, is “Shush, I’m working.” Now, I know this is a phrase you’ve used in some variation before. There are work-from-home writers in this group. But it’s usually used in conjunction with a clearly defined office, with a door, and older child(ren).

Side note on the office: I have one. The door serves to keep guests from noticing that it looks very much like rental storage. I had intended to “work on” the office this summer, but really when choosing between writing a book and cleaning out the rental storage who wouldn’t choose the book?

Side note on the child: He is smart, sweet, sensitive, and clingy. C L I N G Y. This isn’t driven by fear or anything worrisome, just a high preference for company. An example: this past Wednesday when my husband’s schedule switched from being in the office to being on the site (three hour drive) from early morning and through the night, my schedule switched from a day alone to a day with the child. We were, if not in direct contact, at least within 6 feet of each other from 4 am to 7 pm. Good thing he’s so cute.

As with this very article, I wrote the book on the couch. That’s where my son first looks for me when he wakes up in the morning. He comes out, snuggles up to me, and all too quickly asks me what’s for breakfast. It’s easy to get distracted, to forget what word comes next, how the scene’s supposed to unfold.

Something that children know and adults have unlearned (not at all exclusively, but I do think especially women because of how we are socialized) is that if you don’t demand it, you probably won’t get it. So I demanded time from my four-year-old son. “Shush, I’m working” doesn’t cut it. (Yes, of course I tried it.) My new goal was at least 1,000 words each morning and 600 or more after the boy went to bed. My son already knew I was writing a book. Again, he’s four. He has no clue what “writing a book” means, and could care less.

Still, I explained what I was doing, what my goal was, and then demanded the time to do it. That is, I told him I was writing 1,000 words every morning regardless of when he woke up and what he wanted, and the more he left me alone the sooner I could get off the couch to do something interesting, like make him breakfast or play cars. I’m proud of him. There were days he left me alone – as in alone in the room – for a whole thirty minutes. Then there were the days I had to finish my word goal while he drove cars or built legos on my legs.

Permission

I made it because of my deal with the boy, but also because when I first brought up writing a novel in July – knowing full well I wasn’t go to do it because a novel is just too damn long – my husband said, “That’s a good idea.” At the time it felt like validation. I wanted it to be a good idea, just needed to hear it from someone else. In reflection, it’s validation in another way. “That’s a good idea” meant that I not only could focus on my writing, I should focus on my writing. Somehow I forgot that in the last four years. Choosing to be a writer means giving myself permission to write; and I hadn’t done that since my son was born.

Permission to write, by the way, comes from ourselves.  It means permission to ignore the laundry until you are down to your last pair of underwear, permission to forget where you put the lawnmower, or the vacuum cleaner, at least until you’ve met that day’s goal. For me, it was permission to spend my child-free days writing to make up the loss for the days I was interrupted so much I didn’t make it past word 50. Nothing else got done in July that wasn’t absolutely necessary (note: meeting friends at McDonald’s when you have a four-year-old and a 113 degree day, IS absolutely necessary) or directly related to the book. That’s okay, I had permission.

Writing Flow, Habit, and the Internal Editor

I’ve written on the site Write Anything about my habit of starting things in a notebook because otherwise I edit as I write. This is something I worried about when I began the project but it turns out that writing a long piece in a very short period of time does the same trick. I just had to, again, give myself permission to focus on 1) writing daily and 2) focus on moving the story along rather than on the story’s integrity.

I wanted it to get me in the habit of writing every day, but that didn’t happen. The morning after I finished my novel, I started reading someone else’s. But the challenge did let me know that I can do it. I can write strongly every morning; I can write longer pieces; I can give myself permission to write and demand my family respect that. It will work out wonderfully.

What I did learn is that I like the story. Not as I wrote it, mind, but the concept is sound, and so are many of the characters. They need to not sound like each other, of course. Now I just need to figure out how to write a second, integrity-based draft as my four-year-old piles cold metal toys on my feet.

Personal Writing Challenge

I’ve been jealous of so-called NaNo-ers for the past couple of years.  I had never heard of NaNo until I had a baby (the cute, time intensive, pick-me-up-or-I’ll-cry all-night-long kind) and a brand new class to teach and was still working toward my Master’s degree.  Writing?  Yes, plenty of that, as long as we count assignment directions, notes on scholarly articles, notes on what I forgot at the grocery store on the second run.

Now that baby is a preschooler and I’ve been ignoring NaNo anyway. It’s in November.  That’s just cruel.  There is no way in –er, Hades – that I’ll ever get any creative writing done in November.

So I’m doing it in July.

If there’s anyone else who has been reluctant to get involved in a novel-in-a-month because of the date, join me.  Here’s my goal:  50,000 words on a novel written from July 1st to July 31st .

That’s over 1600 words a day.  A friend and I estimated it at 8-9 pages a day.  Keep in mind I haven’t written more than two pages a day – on assignment stuff and the occasional dead-end story – since before my son was born, so I’m setting the bar scary high for myself to aim for a (crappy, no-one-reads-it) novel in 5 weeks.

50,000 words in 5 weeks?  I must be insane.

Wish me luck!  (And kindly send a kick in the pants too – starting now (well, if you can arrange it, start kicking me yesterday… about 5am July 2nd.)

 

Editor’s Note:  If you are interested in joining Jessica in this July writing adventure but don’t know where to start, you may want to check out Camp NaNoWriMo, which is running now for the month of July!

Self-reflection: Character Vs. Plot

It took me a long time to understand why I didn’t like some books that other people raved about. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, for instance.  (Dale may be writing another blasphemer post after reading this.) I see its strength.  I understand it is impressive in its scope of imagining.  But I didn’t like it and didn’t read the third novel in the series. Let me explain this is unusual for me as the only series I haven’t finished—but which was complete by the author at the time I read it—was one my husband demanded I stop.  He hated hearing about why it was such a bad story.  The Foundation series, though, I just didn’t care to finish.

We all know stories need both character and plot.  I bet we’ve all read the extremes: stories which revolve around character and contain a slight blip for a plot arc, and stories which revolve around plot and contain characters that are more sketched than fleshed out.  I wonder, though, if many of us have taken a look at how character and plot really impact our reading preferences.  Not to mention how our reading preferences and choices impact our writing preferences and choices.

I certainly never did until recently. It’s embarrassing, actually, how long it took for me to realize what hooked me into a book– good, bad, or mediocre.  It’s the character-centeredness of the book.  The Foundation series is event-driven.  Don’t get me wrong– I LOVE action in a book.  I read the Games of Thrones series, what was available of it, years before it became an international phenomenon.  I loved the Da Vinci Code, although I probably would have been more into it if I had read it before the rest of the world announced What A Great Book it was.  It was also very event-driven, but still character-centered.

Characters drive all my stories, now that I think about it, except one.  Well, they drive that exception as well, but the story revolves around an event not the characters.  That’s the story that I never could get to flow.  It’s choppy and confusing in places, and that’s after two workshops and three rewrites, one of which gave it a single character for readers to follow.

I didn’t consciously write an event-centered story; it makes me wonder what would happen if I did.  Would it be any good?  Would I spend as much time staring at the computer screen and cussing out the events that won’t resolve that I spend cussing out the characters who won’t make up their minds?

I want to be the strongest writer I can be.  Of course, I defeat myself in the sheer lack of time I give to my so-called craft.   My goal this summer (when my summer actually starts, in July) is to write a short story different from what I have done in the past.  I think writing an event-driven story would be an interesting challenge for me.

I know the writing stance of a few – very few, sadly – Today’s Author contributors, but little more.  Which are you: an event or character reader?  An event or character writer?  Or both?  What do you like about it?

Whose story is it? A question of ethnicity and authorship

Ethnic(ity) is such a loaded word.  It conjures batik long shirts or hijabs or spices that did not originate in England.  It conjures otherness in a romanticized way.  Here, I mean it more inclusively and pragmatically.  But I hope you’ll forgive me for not spending time to define beyond that.

I’d always intended a follow-up to my post What Race Has to Do with Writing.  I am, frankly, stuck.

I read an article on Strange Horizons on the same topic and realize that I have the wrong vantage point for what I want to do with my follow-up post.  I’d intended to encourage us all to be open to writing other races, ethnicities, or cultures.  Yet I have never done this.  I merely have the intent.  And I also have a deep respect for those who say “don’t”.

When I came across an article on this topic, it mentioned RaceFail, which refers to –in a very loose definition – use of another’s culture in a shallow or desultory way.  The conversation sketched in the link to RaceFail and the experiences and reflections in the author’s article helped me realize I don’t want to tell you about writing outside one’s culture.  I am not an authority, have no experience, and am really more spectator than participant at this point.  What I want to do is really much simpler:

I want to invite you into the conversation—you might even call it an argument, but I prefer conversation.  I want to invite you into the conversation about race in writing, and share the information so you can come to your own understanding and decision.

I’m directing you to sci/fi sites but that’s because sci/fi writers have had the…luxury, perhaps…of shallowly borrowing pieces from real cultures because it’s all supposed to be taken as, well, fantasy.  So the argument is alive and heated in the sci/fi community.  But the problems in this way of presenting culture, and the question at hand goes beyond fantasy and sci/fi.  The question underlying it all is who has the authority and the right to write certain kinds of stories or characters.

My invitation and question to you:  Should author’s write characters who are outside of the author’s own culture?  Would you?

Please don’t answer until you have read more about it.  Here are two perspectives:

“So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture” by Rochita Leonen-Ruiz

Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl

Please come back and share your thoughts in the comments.