Politics

There are a lot of words to describe the state of politics in the world today and this morning I’m posting just a random question that came to me while sitting in my local Starbucks:  Can we as writers describe the current chaotic state of politics as inspirational?

In other words, I’m curious if other writers in the Today’s Author community have been using the non-stop political news from around the globe as a creative spark for your works in progress, new works or anything creative.  Personally, I’ve been working on some ideas related to national and international politics (in a distant future, interplanetary sci-fi sort of area).

Whatever your or my politics might be, we are in a reality right now that on some days reads like fiction.  No one’s political views are right or wrong for this particular discussion, I really just want to see if other authors are finding ways to use the current state of things for a creative gain.  If you are, how are you using it in your work? If not, is this because you can’t find inspiration in it or is it because you need to get away from the 24-hour noise of it?  Looking forward to hearing about how you might or might not incorporate political issues into your works.

The Writers Circle: Old Notebooks, New Ideas

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

As a writer, you’ve likely started some stories and stopped–giving up due to a lack of ideas or a lack of passion for the story.  Many writers never throw these false starts away, instead keeping the old notebooks buried in the bottom of a drawer or in a box in the basement. If you are one of these writers who keeps everything you’ve written, do you go back and look through those old notebooks from time to time? Have you ever re-started a story you’d abandoned long ago or mined the old notebooks for new story ideas?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Writers Circle: Seeking Inspiration

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all have our favorite places to write, whether it’s a special spot at home, a specific corner table in the nearby coffee shop, the non-fiction stacks at the local library or a grassy hill overlooking a quiet lake.  What places inspire you to write and where do you go when you need a place that you can just keep writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Creative Anxiety

It’s been a month already, huh? As you may or may not recall, last time I rambled for a bit on Today’s Author, it was about the differences between the writing process and a writing cycle. The short version looks like this:

The Writing Cycle

I think that with some very minor revisions, we could view any creative output through a similar lens.

Of course, this is just how one guy thinks about it (that’s me). And I admittedly think about creativity a lot—maybe too much. I am inherently curious about what triggers creativity and why it happens the way it happens for the people it happens for. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to look at anxiety in both the creative process and the creative cycle–creative anxiety, we could call it. I think that artists are, on average, a pretty anxious breed. We worry about almost everything it seems, but in my experience the anxiety is worst at the beginning of the writing process and at the end of the writing cycle.

When I start a new writing project, I freak out in the early going. Are the ideas good enough? Does the story have enough going on? Are these characters interesting? As a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer for a good chunk of the process, this anxiety hangs around for a while. As a writer of general fiction, the anxiety starts to fade when I get up around 40,000 words. It’s almost all gone by the time I finish my outline of the last half of the book. That’s when I know, for better or worse, the book will be finished. The momentum takes over.

Writing poetry was similar. At the inception of an idea for a new poem, I was nervous about writing. I would struggle through the lines for a while, and eventually, if the poem was meant to be, some line or couplet or stanza would snag me and the anxiety would fade away.

I enjoy the early stages of the process, though—in spite of the anxiety. It’s new and exciting and I’m learning about these new people, so there is a chance that some of that anxiety comes from the excitement of starting something new.

 

We’ve established that the writing cycle encapsulates all of the movements of any writing project—from its planning, to its editing and revision, to cover design and layout, all the way through publication, if that is the goal of the project. Of course, a creative cycle can end when you put the binder clip on and shove it in the back of a drawer. Once a writing project is abandoned for whatever reason, that cycle is done.

I’ve learned that I feel the greatest anxiety at the very end of this process. When I’m out promoting the book, I’m anxious about two things:

1.    My creation doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. Will they take care of it? Will they love it? Will they hate it and burn it? Will they understand it?

Not that any of that really matters. It’s up to readers to read and draw their own conclusions. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a source of anxiety.

2.   What will the next project be?

This is different from the anxiety felt at the beginning of the writing process. Here, we worry if we will have another idea worth pursuing with the same vigor as the one that just wrapped. Will we always have stories to tell? For some people, it may be alright to imagine a world where they don’t write anymore. But for me? I don’t know what that looks like.

There is a great scene in Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, where a young Rushdie meets Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut asks the young writer, who was fresh off publishing Midnight’s Children, “Are you serious about this writing business?” When Rushdie responds that he is, Vonnegut says, “Then you should know that the day is going to come when you won’t have a book to write, and you’re still going to have to write a book.”

That scene sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. First, it would have been super badass to be in that room. Second, what if I run out of stories?

What are your experiences with creative anxiety? Let’s discuss in the comments.

The Writers Circle: Inspiring Others to Write

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We have each written a lot of things in our lives and have had many sources of inspiration along the way. Today let’s talk about ways you have inspired others to write. Have you participated in a writing group? Volunteered at an elementary school or youth organization?  Participated in a supportive way in online or offline writing events?  What are some ways you have helped to get other people writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Looking for Inspiration

I often hear writers say they aren’t inspired or can’t think of a story.  Inspiration is all around us, just look and be willing to ask a few questions.  Read the news, listen to friends’ stories, or think about something that happened to you. For example:

A couple of days ago I was frustrated with my computer.  More that normally frustrated.  You see, I was in a hurry to get something done at work when the weekly software update message popped up on my screen and wouldn’t let me continue until I clicked, NOT NOW!  Yesterday the same thing happened with my cell phone as I went to check my voicemail, “A new version of iOS is available, install now, install later.”  Okay it only took 15 seconds to click 10 times to get rid of the popup so I could get to listen to my voice mail.

Maddening.  Yes, I could go through and maybe silence all those, but some, like the ones my IT department at work forces on me just will never go away and will continue to popup at exactly the wrong moment.  What really got me thinking was this what if question, “What if I were in a space ship when ground control sent a software update?”

Or, what if my spaceship’s computer decided it was time to download and install a major software update just as I am landing on Mars?

A few years ago my local marquetry club had a guest speaker give a class on designing.  He stepped us through some design processes, gave us some tips and did a few design exercises.  One exercises was to take two very different things and see if you could combine them into one thing.

For example, take a giraffe and a toaster.  Now design something.  What I came up with is the Giroaster.  The finished concept is a toaster, with a light and a recipe holder. Okay, I added the recipe holder, but I needed something for the giraffe necked light to shine on that would make sense next to a toaster.

No, I haven’t solved the problem of toaster occasionally setting the recipes on fire.

Let me give you another example.  Let’s say you want to write a crime story that features an arson.  Are you an expert on arson?  I am not, but I’ve got a story to tell about an arson.  30 years ago I took a real estate sales class thinking that selling houses could be a career choice.  It wasn’t a good choice for me, but I heard an interesting story.  A man in our class owned a house that he rented out to a woman.  Over time the woman proved to be a bit mentally unstable and she stopped paying her rent, so he sent an eviction notice.  Shortly after the notice was delivered he got a call from a neighbor saying that they’d just called the fire department as people were smelling a strong chemical smell from the house.

When the man arrived the fire captain told him that someone had put pots of turpentine on the stove and they were starting to boil when his crew showed up.

It was a cautionary tale about a mentally ill person bent on destruction.  In this story everything turned out fine as the woman was quickly located, charged, convicted and sent away for a long time in a mental hospital.

Given those facts, could you build a story?  Let’s ask some basic questions:

  • What kind of man would own a rental home?
  • Why was the man taking a class in real estate sales?
  • What was the man’s relationship with the neighbors?
  • Why did the neighbors have his phone number?
  • How did the arsonist convince the man to rent her the house?
  • What other arsons had she done and why?
  • What kind of mental problems did she have?
  • What would happen to a pot of boiling turpentine on a gas stove? On an electric stove?

I am thinking that you could come up with a lot more questions to ask and in the end come up with an interesting story.  Perhaps something like this:

A man named Bob recently was laid off from his job as manager at a local restaurant.  His mother had recently died and left him her home.  A local real estate broker convinces Bob to rent it out and get a real estate license so Bob could work for the broker.  Needing a tenant for the property, he advertises and finds Sue, a 29 year-old who has just moved to the area and has a job with a local chemical supply company.  Little does Bob know that Sue killed a lover in another city by setting a house on fire.  Sue turns out to be a one woman crime wave (possible she’s involved with the drug trade which has taken a toll on her mind). And of course the neighborhood knows the fine young boy, Bob, who came to see his mother and their friend every Sunday afternoon.  So sad about Bob’s divorce just after losing his job and his mother dying.

So, just go get inspired.  Remember stories from your past.  Take two unrelated things and put them together, or think about what annoys you.

But mostly, just keep asking, “what if?” And keep writing.

Put Yourself in the Path of Inspiration

I cringe every time I hear the phase, “writer’s block.”  Gives me shivers and makes me itch all over.  Those two words used to be my favorite reason for not writing, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Those blocks could go on for years before I’d get back into a writing ‘mood.’  Sometimes I hear people say that they aren’t creative or that they’ve run out of ideas.  I get that, sometimes I don’t have any ideas either, but I don’t let that get in the way of writing activities.

You’ll often hear the phrase, “Writers write.”  Well, that’s true – mostly.  While writers are expected to turn out words on the page there are other things that need to be done before and after writing.

A simple analogy would be my other hobby, woodworking.  Think about building something from wood, say a box.  There are a number of steps that need to happen.  First a drawing is needed.  Then I have to get the wood, glue, finish, nails, screws, sandpaper, and other things.  Then I go to the workshop.  I’ll cut, sand, glue, nail and paint until I have my finished box.  Then I’ll likely show my finished box to my wife, some friends and brag about it at my woodworking club meeting.  It’s also possible that I’ll take some pictures of it and post it on my blog.

So what part of all that is “woodworking?”  Yes, all of it is.

Same is true with writing.  There are many parts.  There’s research, editing, revising, writing, posting to the blog, working with editors, and planning the publicity tour for your next best seller.  Come on, we can dream here.

Perhaps the most over looked part of writing is getting the idea for your story.  Often inspiration is considered a passive activity.  Some people think, as I used to, that you just go about life and suddenly a great idea will smack you upside the head and whamo you’re on the best seller list.

It doesn’t work that way and is the number one cause of writer’s block: sitting on your backside waiting for inspiration.  Becoming inspired and finding good ideas are proactive tasks.  You have to go searching for it and it takes some work.

In 1987 I found a book, Writer’s Block and How to Use It, by Victoria Nelson.  I think this one is currently out of print and the only thing I really remember about it is the title.  The title does hold the basis for how I think about writing now – if you’re blocked, use it, be active about your creativity.

After reading this book, I’d do things like free writing or reading books about writing – anything that would just get my fingers typing on the keyboard.  I also found during this time that often I get blocked on a piece of writing because of the emotions that the writing is generating in me – especially anything that is autobiographical. This is a time when I find spending time writing about why I am blocked, helps.

There are times though when we are truly empty inside and don’t have the creative energy to write anything. It’s times like this when I think of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way and her concept of breathing in.  The idea is that in order to spend energy creating something, first you have to gather in creative energy.  You do this in a number of ways.  Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, anything physical that allows you to let your mind just rest.  You should read books, watch movies, see plays and so on. Have a coffee with a friend, or go to a poetry reading. Go to art shows, concerts, museums – anyplace where you’ll find things that inspire you.  This is the act of breathing in.

As you experience the creativity of others, or of nature, you’ll fill up your creative self with energy, inspiration and lots of ideas.  After you’ve been somewhere take a moment to write about what you’ve seen, felt and experienced.  I am willing to bet that the words will just flow.

Which brings me to a book I found last year in an art museum’s gift shop, Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

If you spend any time in the halls of your local university studying literary criticism, you’ll eventual despair as you begin to realize that all literature and indeed most creative works are really derivative.  Ideas build on each other and as it’s been said so many times, “It’s all been done before.”

Look at your favorite stories and movies in depth and you’ll find they are really just clever rearrangements of existing ideas.   Just think of the Harry Potter books and how much of that world we’ve seen in other places.  Witches, wizards, dragons, trolls, dark magic trying to take over the world and the young reluctant hero who has to save us.  How many times have we heard that story?

Yet JK Rowling added one interesting twist, “What if there was a school for magic that looked like an English Public School?”  And then wow, that one spark and we have a compelling story.

Kleon’s book starts out by asking, “Were do artists get their ideas?” The answer is, “They steal them.”  He then goes on to talk about some of the great ways we can be creative.  Things like have side projects, hobbies, be boring (let your mind rest), share your work, steal ideas properly, and write what you like.

Being consistently creative is really about putting yourself into the path of inspiration by looking at all the creative things around you, stealing the best parts and figuring out how to put those together in new ways.

And just so you  know, I stole most of this post from the three books I mentioned.

The Writers Circle: Inspiring Words

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

As writers, there is often a time where we lose focus and lose our confidence.  This is especially true for young, inexperienced writers. Today let’s discuss how we can find inspiration when we need it and how we can (and do) work to inspire others to find their creative stride. 

Let’s discuss this in the comments or on the forums and see what our community thinks.

Interview with Author Alison Boulton

Years ago, I discovered a book called Tom’s Daughters on a writing website and it was so good that I bought a version when it was self-published. It was the first e-book I ever purchased and remains one of the best I’ve read. I still remember the characters like they were real people. So when I heard that the author, Alison Boulton, was publishing a second novel – I jumped at the chance to do an interview.

KO: What did you learn about self-publishing from your first book? How are things different this time around?

AB: An acquaintance suggested that he helped me self-publish Tom’s Daughters as an e-book to see if he could ‘make us both a fortune.’ I was happy to accept this as it hadn’t been picked up despite being sent to numerous agents. I wasn’t comfortable negotiating the formatting and the technical stuff required to put in on Amazon for Kindle. He also did the cover from a photo I provided and set up a website. I think the deal was that he got 25% of revenues. The downside was that when sales were slow he lost interest and I got frustrated nagging for information and at not having control to update accounts myself.

This time round I wanted control from the beginning, and I also wanted a book that I could hold in my hand. I’ll put it on Kindle later, of course, but having the paperback makes publication and being a writer feel much more real. I think other people’s reactions have been more positive too.

KO: Where do you get your story inspiration from?

AB: For me a story starts with an image or a couple of images that are linked in some way. With Tom’s Daughters I wanted to write about sisters, but there was also the picture of a young woman with a small child in North London. The issue of the mysterious father was hovering in the background.

With Chasing Sunflowers it was again the image of a child, this time a boy, painting sunflowers for his mother. It was clear they were in Amsterdam where I also lived for a few years, and that the mother was lonely.

I then have to sit and try and work out the bones of a plot. Sometimes I write random scenes or conversations. Chasing Sunflowers was written first as a short story, but then it slowly grew into a novel, changing and developing in the process. The actual ending was the last thing to become clear.

KO: What kind of writer are you? Do you plot everything out before writing or does it evolve throughout the process? Do you force yourself to write every day? How long does it take to write a novel?

AB: The writing definitely evolves, but there has to be a certain amount of plotting too, plus a timeline of events. It always takes me a while at the beginning to sort dates out – how old was that character when this happened, etc.? And some thought must go into how the threads of the story entwine and unfold to keep the reader interested. There should, I think, always be some sort of denouement at the end. And I don’t really like sad endings, so I haven’t written one yet!

And it takes me ages to finish a novel, maybe even two or three years, because other stuff – like teaching and running our holiday complex – get in the way. I have to earn a living, unfortunately. I’m hoping the next one, currently called The Red Balloon, will be quicker though. And I do try to at least look at it every day but I don’t always succeed.

KO: Tell us about Chasing Sunflowers. Who is your audience?

AB: Chasing Sunflowers is the story of Kate, who moves to Amsterdam with her husband and young son. Lost and lonely in a new city, she develops a passion for the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Her decision to study them leads her to artist Rudy de Jong and following in Vincent’s footsteps, she makes a trip to Arles which transforms her life.

So, it’s a book about a woman who steps outside her own life, and how the experience changes her. There’s quite a lot about Amsterdam, the south of France and Vincent van Gogh too.

My first audience is me, since it was me I told the story to first and I liked it. So after that people a bit like me, I suppose; usually female, maybe over 25, though my daughters who are 20 and 22 enjoyed it too.

KO: What are your favorite books?

AB: I mostly read books about ‘real’ people and characters in plausible situations. I’m not a fan of Magic Realism or Fantasy novels. I hate anything sensationalist, badly written or too soppy. I love Ian McEwan, AS Byatt, Anne Tyler, and Doris Lessing amongst many others. Some of Lessing’s writing is futuristic, but then I love the prophetic nature of her work. Also EM Forster; I always say Howards End is my favourite book. I don’t know if it’s really true but it’s definitely up there.

KO: Alison, thanks so much for sharing and best of luck with the new book.

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).