Wyrdwend

The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

PROS AND CONS

Should I Join a Professional Organization?

Thinking about joining a professional organization? This post is geared to the writer who has decided what type of books to write and wonders if memberships would enhance the proposal. Those who are undecided would be better served by attending a few conferences as a nonmember to discern career direction.

When investigating professional organizations, I recommend asking yourself questions:

Can I afford to join? Some organizations keep dues reasonable. Others are pricey. Dues often increase. If the math doesn’t work for you, don’t join, at least not at this time in your career.

Do I have time to participate? If you are already overburdened with work and family life, unless you can reorganize your calendar or drop other activities, now is not the time to join.

What conference opportunities does the organization offer? If you join an organization that offers, say, a conference in Hawaii every year and you will always feel uncomfortable with the expense and time needed, this might not be the right organization for you. But if they offer convenient local chapters where you can participate, then this organization offers promise.

Will I meet the right editors and agents through this organization? Visit the organization’s web site. Most will have either the past year’s or current conference plans posted. Do the editors, agents, and mentors specialize in or are they knowledgeable about the books you want to write? Look until you find a conference with the professionals who will be the most helpful for you to meet.

Does the organization cater to my career plans? Look for organizations with a mission to grow the writer you are or wish to be.

Will agents and editors be impressed by memberships? I take memberships into consideration but I never accept or decline based on memberships. What the membership tells me is that this author has connections, or at least the ability to be in contact with other authors writing similar books. These relationships are helpful on both a personal and professional level for the author. Membership also says that the author has taken steps to shore up a career and didn’t just write a book on the fly and hope for the best.

Can memberships hurt my career? Years ago, I received a submission listing so many organizations’ acronyms that if the author had been an active member in each, she’d have no time to write a grocery list, much less a book. I asked for elaboration, but never received any.

Please be focused and thoughtful before joining any organization. And remember, the membership is for your personal and professional growth. Enjoy!

Your turn:

Are you a member of any professional organizations?

What is the biggest benefit you see from joining professional organizations?

What professional organizations would you recommend?

 

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MY FIRST PERSONAL HELL WEEK AND WHAT I LEARNED

HELL WEEK ONE

Well, my first private and personal Hell Week is over. Under my belt. I’m not gonna say it wasn’t tough, because it certainly was. On the other hand it was extremely good for me. So I’ve decided to make it a quarterly event for me (once a quarter, every year).

Actually I had to spread my Hell Week over 12 days because, and maybe it is just this time of year, once or twice I would have to spend most of a day driving my wife to Columbia or Rock Hill or elsewhere because of her car accident. So I would either have to add days onto my scheduled week to make up for that or if I had to do something else for half a day just redid that same day the next day. So that was difficult, but doable.

Tuesday was the most difficult on my schedule because on that day I did nothing but physical training (weights, routines, boxing, sports, athletics, combat, etc.) from 5:00 AM until 10:00 at night although I actually had to switch that day to Thursday because of helping my wife. It was hard, I won’t lie, and hard to push myself in that way even though I’m in pretty good shape.

Some of the other days that required thinking all day were also difficult. It’s perhaps harder than most realize to force yourself to think and focus all day on purely mental and psychological tasks with only meal breaks or times for physical training or weight lifting. Also Sunday was surprisingly hard as although it might seem easy and relaxed according to what I had scheduled I spent most of the day fasting and in Prayer Vigil. A long prayer vigil after a rough week is a surprisingly hard undertaking. It was difficult and taxing to concentrate and not fall asleep. Especially considering my prior lack of sleep. Occasionally I had to do other things to stay awake. That surprised me, but it was true.

Still, I haven’t done anything like this since my thirties and so I have to say that after it was all over and looking back on it I had a ball and it was extremely beneficial for me. I either learned or relearned what I am truly capable of at my age and even though I’m in my fifties I can honestly say that in many ways I performed as if in my thirties. And I feel far superior for the effort.

Actually, as I told my wife, I feel sharp as a timberwolf and tough as twisted iron.”

I recommend this to everyone.

Some of the things I learned or relearned as a result of this Hell Week: I really like getting up every day at 5:00 AM (actually 4:30 because I always have my clocks set 1/2 hour ahead), I can go hard without much sleep (always have been able to do that though I’m glad to be back to sleeping regularly), I become dehydrated easily so I have to always force myself to drink, I like eating healthy and light, I like pain in my muscles but not in my back, my powers of concentration and focus are still pretty sharp, I much prefer physical activity to sitting on my ass and being in shape to being out of it, cold don’t mean much if you’re moving (every day I did my morning hike and run and tire hauls in freezing or near freezing weather and in short sleeves and it never bothered me once and I rarely felt cold), and I can push myself pretty hard without any one else needing to do so. And I can adapt pretty easily to almost any circumstance. Also the amount of real work I got done during Hell Week was rather impressive. In sheer quantity that is, though I had no real time for editing or refinement, that will all have to come later, now that I’ve returned to my normal work schedule.

For the next seven weekends however I will be testing myself to determine just how much good Hell Week really did me (performance wise) and what my levels of progress actually and precisely were. That should lead to further program imporvements.

As for Hell Week I have already set about improving and refining the program (as a result of my experience) and to expanding upon the idea. I am now developing a new, more comprehensive program that I call Lifelong Endeavors that will encompass my Day to Day Activities, my Regular Training, monthly and quarterly Challenges (such as Hell Week and Survival Challenges), and Quests (far larger enterprises and expeditions I want to undertake in life such as funding and leading an archaeological expedition).

I’ll discuss all of that later though. In other posts. For now I have other work to do.

Have a good day folks.

Thanks for reading and see ya later.

I’m serious though, try your own Hell Week. It’ll be extremely good for you, you’ll be surprised at just how far you can push yourself if you really try, and it should do you a world of good.

By the way, if anyone is interested you can find my personal Hell Week Program at this link (the prior post).

Develop your own though. For what you need to do. Don’t just use mine, though you’re welcome to. Design your own.

HELL WEEK PROGRAM

HELL WEEK PROGRAM

here is my actual Hell Week Program after all necessary improvements and revisions.

No, I’m not afraid I’ll wash out or be unable to complete it but it will be difficult. Especially Tuesday and Friday. I’m not kidding myself that it won’t be hard.

But it’s a good start to incorporating all of my old training and educational and survival and CAP and others forms of training into a single program or set of programs geared to improve me at this stage and era of my life. And I’m already working on integrating all of these things into a single, unified Field System of Training. I’ll talk about that later, after Hell Week.

For now it is sufficient to say that I begin my new Hell Week tomorrow.

I’ll probably be incommunicado for a week therefore. I might make a quick post on progress, but I doubt it.

Here is the background on my Hell Week. Or just see previous post.

Below is the program itself.

Have a good week folks and I’ll see you when I can. For now I’m gonna go drink some water, listen to a quick radio play, and then go to bed early. Tomorrow I begin.

Night all.

General Program Principles

Follow Diet
Train Daily
Stand at Ease, legs far apart when in public
Employ your charisma at all times in public
Be Friendly and helpful to all
Assist anyone you can
Breathe deeply and calmly even when training
Hydrate often
Sleep 6 to 8 hours at night if Program allows
Sleep in tent or on floor
Cook own food or eat food raw
Exercise or Work to failure or to task completion
Drink only water and coffee – hydrate often
Take all Metaergogenics
Whenever you go out into the public dress superbly and be generous
Network and interact freely and with all
Complete all 7 days without excuse
Progressive resistance in all tasks and categories as you proceed
Serious injury or unforeseen outside circumstances are the only acceptable reasons for non-completion, then must start all over

No entertainment or rest between functions unless Program allows
No TV, radio, film, internet, or email unless specified
No sex with wife during Program

Test every Saturday after completing Program for next 7 weeks (one function per week)

 

WEEKLY TASKS

MONDAY – CREATION AND DESIGN

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike 1 ½ mile – ½ hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Game Design and General Design – ½ hour
Lunch, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Lecture – 1 hour
Write short story – 1 hour
Snack, water, rest, coffee, stretch – ½ hour
Write song – ½ hour
Write poem – ½ hour
Artwork/sketch – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – ½ hour
Write novel – 2 ½ hours
Warmann – 1 hour
Submissions and Marketing – 1 hour
Work in Notebooks – 1 hour
Stargaze – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

TUESDAY – PHYSICAL – WARMANN

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike in pack 2 miles – ½ hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Football – ½ hour
Lunch/water, metas – ½ hour
Soccer – ½ hour
Run 1 ½ mile – ½ hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Shooting – ½ hour
Snack, water, rest, coffee, stretch – ½ hour 1
Baseball – ½ hour
Warmann – 1 hour
Weight Lifting – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Boxing – ½ hour
Sword/knife fighting – ½ hour
Stealth and climbing – 1 hour
Warmann – 1 hour
Work in Notebooks – 1 ½ hours
Read – 1 hour
Bed

WEDNESDAY – INVENTION/INNOVATION

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike 1 ½ mile – ½ hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Warmann – ½ hour
Lunch, water, metas – ½ hour
Lecture – 1 hour
Observe Nature – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Invent – 1 hour
Design – 1 hour
Innovate – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Submissions and Marketing – 1 hour
Study – 1 hour
Warmann – ½ hour
Work in Notebooks – 1 hour
Write – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

THURSDAY – MENTAL (PROBLEM SOLVING, RESEARCH,
PLANNING)

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike in Pack 1 ½ mile – ½ hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, Water, Rest, Stretch – ½ hour
Warmann – ½ hour
Problem Solving – 1 hour
Lunch water, metas – ½ hour
Lecture – 1 hour
Observe Nature – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Planning – 1 hour
Operation Chay – 1 hour
Weight Lifting – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Submissions and Marketing – 1 hour
Work in Notebooks – 1 hour
Write – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

FRIDAY – FINANCIAL (INVESTMENTS, BUSINESS, START-
UP, FUNDING, NETWORKING) – WELTMANN

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike 3 miles – 1 hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
General Business Review ½ hour
Lunch, water, metas – ½ hour
Lecture – 1 hour
Investments – 1 hour
Banking – ½ hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Start Ups and Business Plans – 1 hour
Funding – 1 hour
Networking – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Submissions and Marketing – 1 hour
Warmann – 1 hour
Operation Weltmann – 1 hour
Write – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

SATURDAY – PSYCHOLOGICAL – GNOSSIS AND CHAY

Wake – 0500
Aesic Practice – ½ hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Music ½ hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Hike 1 ½ mile – ½ hour
Research – 1 hour
Snack, water, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Warmann – 1 hour
Lunch, waters, metas – ½ hour
Vices and Virtues – 1 hour
Christian Wizardry – 1 hour
Operation Gnossis – 2 hours
Goals and Objectives – 1 hour
Warmann – ½ hour
Weight Lifting – ½ hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Submissions and Marketing – 1 hour
Operation Chay – 1 hour
Work in Notebooks – 1 hour
Mode and Mood – 1 hour
Write – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

SUNDAY – SPIRITUAL – CHAY

Wake – 0600
Aesic Practice – 1 hour
Breakfast, Water, Metas – 1 hour
Exercise Animals – ½ hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Church – 3 hours
Lunch, Water, Metas – ½ hour
Hike 2 miles – 1 hour
Snack, water, coffee, rest, stretch – ½ hour
Music – 1 hour
Meditation – 1 hour
Prayer – ½ hour
Nap – 1 hour
Dinner, water, metas – 1 hour
Operation Chay – 1 hour
Habit Review – ½ hour
Behavior, Philosophy, and Values Review – 1 hour
Night hike in woods – 1 hour
Read – 1 hour
Bed

HELL WEEK

HELL WEEK

About once a month I regularly test myself on some matter: physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, intellectual, creative, etc.

I do this to see how my daily and weekly training routines have improved me, or not.

Recently however I have been reading a book called, Hell Week by a Norwegian guy name Erik Larssen, former paratrooper and now an entrepreneur and performance coach. He suggests putting yourself through a Hell Week whenever needed.

I think his idea makes a great deal of sense and so I have designated the first week of September my upcoming Hell Week. He has a sample program but I will be modifying it for myself and my own objectives. Anyway I figure I can put myself through my own Hell Week maybe twice a year or so and see how that benefits me.

The types of training my Hell Week will include will be:

Creative – Monday
Physical – Tuesday
Inventive/Innovative – Wednesday
Mental/Intellectual – Thursday
Business, Entrepreneurial, Financial – Friday
Psychological – Saturday
Spiritual – Sunday

Testing will follow Hell Week for the next seven weeks, one Test per week

That way my Hell Week program will mirror the kinds of things I’ve done and trained in for decades now.

I’m thinking I might follow up Hell Week with a modified one week Survival Challenge in the woods in autumn. Pack enough food to have one meal per day, no fire, find my own water, explore a lot. Then if I need more food I can trap it or fish it. But part of it will be to see how little food I really require. And to sharpen thing like my senses, my nightvision (which I really only practice much with my telescope watching the moon and stars), to go back to sneaking a lot, to toughen my body back to natural environmental conditions, and to see what my dreams are like in those conditions.

Also my wife liked the idea of Hell Week so I’m making a very simplified form of Hell Week for her and the girls which I’ll call Hell Day that they can do once a month.

After Hell Week I’ll also choose one day a month (I’m thinking the first day of the month) to do a Hell Day just to keep me sharp and to improve my self-testing.

Then do a basic Survival Challenge once a year.

THE OBSERVATION OF FAILURE

Failure is the one thing that modern men are almost always willing to excuse and yet are almost never willing to learn from. No wonder it does them so little good.

from The Business, Career, and Work of Man

ON POETRY – TUESDAY’S TALE

Well, it ain’t really a Tale for Tuesday, but it is a tale about how you should tell what you can’t really tell when you try. Not in words, anyway…

ON POETRY

Poetry involves the minute manipulation of words in such a way that they are constantly and subtly altered in definition, either so that they take on a broader and more flexible implication than they have ever possessed before, or so that they take on a more narrow and peculiar resolution in terminology than they have ever before possessed.

Do this wisely and well and with patient and practiced craft and you will be considered a master of phrasing and sound, perhaps even possessed of real poetic genius. Do this sloppily or shoddily and in haste and without regard for the demands of true meaning in language and you will be considered a mere dilettante or perhaps even a hapless hack.

from my book, On Poetry

 

TO PORT OUR HOME, TO STARBOARD STILL UNKNOWN

I began this poem around noon as a response to today’s Daily Post prompt on Voyage. I got two stanzas in and then my daughters needed my help and then someone working with me on one of my start-ups demanded my attention and so therefore I have had to leave it at this point. I apologize but that kinda thing happens in life.

I intend to finish it but cannot do so at the moment. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless, and have a good day folks…

 

TO PORT OUR HOME, TO STARBOARD STILL UNKNOWN

To port was home, to starboard unknown foreign seas, and
Lands bespoken of in dream, where endless roam great beasts
Not seen since man was in the cradle of his mother’s shore
The stars still young and uncertain in their unfixed course
Across the skies of night still bright with constellated myth
Prodigious like the unseen figures which grappled in the dark
Around the moon’s white lantern in desperate search of a world
So new, so full of wonder, that no other home would do,
Not, at least, to the Daring

To port is home but on every other course the waves break
Upon a soil unsown with the tares and tears that common habit
Bestrew along the Earth we know so well by mundane states
Unchallenged in their broad decay and rush to ruin
Across the fields of ancient countries whose ground is salted
With the misery of crawling empires and rotting kingdoms
Made of man beneath the shadow of what is most foul within him
So old, so full of apathy, that no such home can seem true
Not, at least, to the Wise…

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SHIT (for free – correction, I Do)

Steven Pressfield is giving away a free download of his new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.
You should download a copy before the free offer expires. I really like and admire Pressfield’s work, both his historical fiction and his non-fiction.

The War of Art was superb. I added it to my personal library. Everyone should read it.

This will likely be another excellent tool for writers.

I can’t wait to read my download of this new book. I’ll start it this weekend. Afterwards I anticipate that I’ll add it to my personal library as well.

 

No strings attached.
No e-mail address required.

Brand new and FREE from Steven Pressfield

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

…picks up where The War of Art left off.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit - by Steven Pressfield

.EPUBDownload your free Nook/iTunes/Kobo e-book here!

.MOBIDownload your free Kindle compatible e-book here!

.PDFDownload your free
PDF e-book here!

We’re giving it away (for a limited time) because we want people to read it. Simple as that.

Want more information or a paperback? Click here.

Thanks from Steve P. and everybody at Black Irish Books.

MY ADVICE TO WRITERS (and Everyone else)

The other day someone asked my advice on how to conduct myself as a writer. Or actually, to be more accurate, my advice on how they might better conduct themselves as a writer based on my prior experiences. Since writing is basically a “lonesome occupation” requiring a great deal of commitment, isolation (to a degree I’ll explain momentarily), focus, determination, self-discipline, and real work. They were having trouble dealing with the “lonesome” part of the occupation.

I repeat my advice to them here in the case this assists anyone else. Of course this advice could just as easily apply to artists, inventors, poets, songwriters, and even (to some extent) entrepreneurs of all kinds (all of which I am) with but a few minor modifications. So this is my Highmoot for this Wednesday.

THIS IS MY ADVICE

This is my advice after having worked for myself for decades. I’m about evenly matched between being an introvert and being an extrovert. I too do my very best work alone. However I prime myself by going out and observing people. Going to places that are active, like labs, industrial complexes, malls, museums, libraries, city streets, performances, college campuses, Vadding, to shops, exploring other towns, theaters, etc.
I do this for a day or two about once every two to three weeks.  Although depending on my work schedule I may not be able to do it but once a month. Nevertheless I do this as much as I can and regularly schedule such things.
(Aside: One place though I never go to is coffee shops. Everyone there is on their computers or cell phones and the interactions are limited and about all you see anyone doing is staring at a screen. Coffee shops are, for the most part, horrible and pretentious work environments, with people tending to merely congregate together in order to appear to be working, when in fact they are not truly working – they are seeking to socially escape real work by the public appearance of a displayed but primarily unreal act of “business.” On this point I entirely agree with Hemingway, coffee shops and cafes are the very worst places to do any actual and real work, though they give the plastic social facade of appearing to be busy.
The very same can be said to be true about coffee shops as “observation posts” on true human behavior. The types of human behavior evidenced in most coffee shops is unnatural, artificial, pretentious, deceptive, and rehearsed. People in coffee shops and cafes are extremely aware that they are being observed, indeed this is one reason so many go there, to observe and be observed (in a sort of pre-approved, socially accepted and promoted play-act), in the place of actually working. I almost never trust the close observations of human behavior I make of people in such environments. Such behaviors tend to be no more “real” than the work supposedly occurring in such places, and just as artificial as the plastic illuminated screens they seem so utterly devoted to, and the technological implements they are eagerly seen to be worshiping. My advice is to skip such places entirely if you can and go rather to where real work can be done and you can make true observations about actual behaviors, be those human or animal. Places like I mentioned above. End Aside.)

Then I come home and my mind and soul are primed with observations and ideas and stories and poetry and songs and invention concepts and business proposals.

When I’m at home and working, and tire, or am bored, then I go outside and clear land, hike in the woods, explore the nearby lands (I live out in the country), go fishing, track and observe animals, climb trees, cut down trees, cut the grass, etc. I said I do my best work alone, but actually I do my best work alone while doing something physical, and then I work in my head as I labor. Both because it is excellent practice to work in your head as you labor (the bodily labor frees the mind to wander and work) and because working while you labor is an excellent Mnemonics Technique. Sometimes I’ll write entire poems, songs, scenes from my novels, sections of business plans, create prototype inventions in my head, etc., then memorize the same and store them in Agapolis, my Memory City as I am physically laboring and only after I quit and go back into the house will I write down what I created.

I know modern people are not big on memory or Mnemonic Techniques (so much the shame for them), but I learned such things from the Ancients and the Medievals and if you ask me a superb memory and good control over your own memory is a far better set of skills and capabilities for a writer (or most anyone) to possess than a thousand cell phones or a hundred laptops or tablets or even a dozen internets. A good memory increases not only your overall intelligence but is fundamental to establishing, developing, and properly employing an excellent vocabulary. So practice writing or creating first in your head (after all you can do such things even when you have no access to even pen and paper), then fully memorize what you do, and only then write it down. Such exercises are not only important to do (because of what I mentioned above), but will pay many dividends in any of your creative endeavours and enterprises. Rely not just upon mere technology for your best creations and for your most important works, but rather upon what you most deeply impress upon your own mind and soul. That is both where creation begins and where it will be properly shaped and forged and worked into worthwhile and well-crafted final products.

I don’t know if this helps you any in your own creative enterprises but my advice is go out at least once a month, or as often as you need it, and do nothing but observe and generate new ideas. Then let them ruminate and percolate through you and within you.

If you thereafter feel all cramped up and unable to work smoothly then do something strenuous and physical outside. The labor will do you good and also set our mind free to wander. Then when you are primed and relaxed go to work.

To simplify to a very basic formula: Prime + Observe + Labor + Work + Memorize = High End and Valuable End Product.
After the necessary revisions for proper refinement, of course.
REWRITE OFTEN.

But just because you work alone doesn’t mean you are a prisoner of your environment and just because you work alone doesn’t mean you always have to be alone.

Go wander, go labor, go explore, go meet new people, go people watch, memorize, and then actually Work. Don’t just wade into crowds and pretend to work.

Actually Work.

Be extremely good for ya. And it will probably make you a helluvah lot better writer than you’ve ever been before. No matter what you’re writing. And it is awful hard to be lonely, or a slack-ass, when you are actually doing Good Work.

That’s my advice, take it for what it’s worth.

THE EXCELLENCE OF THE PHYSICAL – HAMMER, TONG, AND TOOLS

THE EXCELLENCE OF THE PHYSICAL

Some people think that I am primarily a mental man, or a “man of the mind” because I spend a lot of time studying, reading, attending and listening to lectures, mastering languages, writing stories and poetry and songs, conducting scientific experiments, etc. Some people think I am primarily a man of the spirit because I spend a lot of time talking about God and to God, examining scriptures, praying, meditating, etc. Some people think I am primarily a man of the psyche (of the soul) because I closely observe my own behavior and the behavior of others, because I watch and take note of other people and am very aware of how they actually behave versus just what they say or proclaim or pretend.

And all of those things are partially true. Not primarily, but partially true. I am in some respects a man of the mind, in other respects a spiritual man, in part a man of the soul and the human psyche.

But there is another part of me that is very, very earthy and physical.

Because I love, and am highly attracted to, and have always been highly attracted to, physical activity and things physical. (Except for eating, I could take or leave eating and if something better than eating existed I’d never eat again. Waste of time to me, and extremely inefficient and wasteful.)

Actually I often do my very best work when hiking, running, clearing land, having sex with the wife, exercising, exploring, climbing, etc. I am attracted to and have always enjoyed physical activity – strain, pain, pleasure, sex, exhaustion, etc. and to me all of those things are drivers and motivators. I have had to learn to correctly control them all and use them wisely and properly but they are all very dear and useful to me. They make me feel alive and invigorated. They are also both stimulants and inspirations to me. Doesn’t matter what I am doing, inventing, working on a business project, writing, composing, drawing, investigating, doing science, etc. physical activity is a stimulant to me.

For instance this morning I took Sam (my American Superior) for a run in the woods (rather than a hike, he’s getting a little fat and I want to work him back into shape with me) and while doing so I developed in my mind six good scenes for my Kithariune novel, a science fiction short story, a Real World invention based around the subject matter of the sci-fi short story (actually the real world invention came first), and had an interesting idea for a scientific experiment. (Physical activity is also an excellent mnemonic technique to me.)

Had I done nothing but sit on my ass this morning and tried to just “Think” (I have nothing against thinking by the way, I highly recommend it to everyone, it’s just I’m not much of a sedentary thinker, I’m an “active thinker” – physical activity stimulates my thinking) I doubt that a single one of those ideas would have occurred to me.

Yes, I am partially a man of the mind, and the spirit, and the soul, but also of the body. My body stimulates the other parts of me. In many ways my body is perhaps my single most important tool of creative expression, either directly or indirectly (as it feeds my mind, soul, and spirit).

I might not have the most excellent body but my body has done me the most excellent service. And just to give him his due, considering what I’ve put him through, he’s been tough as hell and I admire and respect him for that.

Is the body or physical activity a stimulant to you as well? Do you also rebel against the idea of “thinking” as being a sedentary pursuit, or the “thinking man” as a sedentary creature?

I certainly do and always have. Even as a child.

 

How I Wrote 10,000 Words in a Weekend

How I Wrote 10,000 Words in a Weekend

I’m a relatively solitary writer but I do have a few people who are always in my corner ( ❤ ) and I was lucky enough to befriend a fellow writer on Twitter just when I was starting to think of taking this on.  I tweeted in conversation to her about what, to me, was a crazy idea …

How I Wrote 10,000 Words in a Weekend // Something Delicious.  That much writing in so little time sounds crazy, right?  I thought so, too, until I did it myself!  Click the pin for my top tips for surviving the task and making it fun, to boot.  There's also a freebie guide to my must-have tools for a writing marathon!

I’ve mentioned a few times now how I wrote the final 10,000 words-ish of my rough draft over the course of a weekend, something heretofore unheard of for me. I’m still a little disbelieving that it actually happened, but it did! I have the printed pages to prove it. As I’m getting back into editing them this week, I want to share with you how I managed to do this, in hopes it’ll help you bust through that unbelievably obnoxious end bit that seems to drag on forever and ever.

It’s time to get it done; let’s do it!

STEP ONE: DECLARE YOUR INTENTIONS

If you tend to keep your writing a relatively private affair, you can take this step by writing it down on a bright flashcard or piece of paper and sticking it up somewhere you’ll see it constantly: “This weekend, I’m going to write ‘X’ words” or “This weekend, I’m going to barrel through my list of remaining scenes.”
And so I did!  I declared my intentions on Twitter and to my steadfast cheerleaders, and off I went.  Well, almost …

STEP TWO: PROACTIVELY REMOVE OBSTACLES

It’s one thing to create make-work for yourself and do the dishes as a form of procrastination, but there’s something to be said, for me at least, in having things in a wee bit of order before you take on something as momentous as a 10K writing marathon.  While I love a bit of cozy clutter, there is a tipping point, especially when I know I’m going to be mussing up my writing area anew with mugs of rooibos tea and peanut butter cup wrappers and empty plates.  Before you settle in for the weekend, spend half an hour cleaning up around your workspace.  For bonus points, run to the store and ensure you have supplies (tea bags are a big one for me).
Oh, and if your computer is as insistent and persnickety as mine is about doing updates and doing them NOW or I’ll slow your computer down to a turtle in a swamp race, do the updates before you start.  The less reasons we have to lose momentum, the better.

STEP THREE: MAKE A LIST (OR TWO)

I work best with music piped in through my headphones.  It doesn’t need to be instrumental or lyric-less, either, though I’m fond of trance, dubstep and chillstep for keeping myself revved up and typing.  If you know it won’t hinder you, songs with the right lyrics can be key to knocking out those pages.  Queue up whatever music inspires you and have it ready to go.  Just make sure you don’t get caught spending three hours making a YouTube playlist, needing to get it just right.
The second list that made a tremendous difference for me was one I’d started a week before, of scenes that still needed to be written.  Depending on how much of a planner you are, you may already have something like this, or maybe you’re just going to wing it.  I find it helps to have at least a line or two written to summarize each of the scenes beforehand.
And the satisfaction you get from crossing the scenes off your list as you go?  Priceless.

STEP FOUR: WORK IN SPURTS

Tempting as it may be to motor through without pause or sleep or stretch, this does not necessarily a successful writing weekend make.  We need the occasional break to rest and refuel, to do Downward Facing Dog or the Cobra, to make a fresh pot of tea or look out the window.  It feels scary to step away from it, I know, but it will feel a lot scarier to be going, going, going, GOING and then THUMP to a halt when you’re only halfway there.  Finish your thought, carry through your spurt, then walk away for a few minutes, or at the very least get out of your chair and stretch a little.  Your story isn’t going anywhere.  In fact, it might even have a little treasure waiting for you upon your return, just waiting to be unwrapped.  Why deny it the pleasure?

STEP FIVE: DON’T THINK TOO HARD

Probably the biggest anvil to fall on your head and derail your writing will be your own self-doubt: what if the ending sucks?  What if the whole thing stinks?  I don’t know what I’m doing!  I’ll never finish this properly.  I’m tired.  I’m a crap writer.  I don’t know why I ever thought I should write a book.
STOP.
 
Right here, right now, make a commitment to yourself to just keep moving until you feel yourself fading.  When you fade, take a break.  Do something else.  When you’re writing in spurts, you don’t give yourself time to think, and that’s crucial.  What’s even more crucial is doing something energizing and awesome in those mini-breaks so you don’t have the chance to go all cerebral.
It’s a rough draft.  It’s not going to be perfect, unless you’re one of those writers.  (I jest, I’m sure they’re lovely souls!)  You just have to keep moving, past your self-doubt, past your self-limitations, past every roadblock you’d fling in your way.  This is where that list of scenes to write comes in handy, because you can just focus on the one you’re writing until it’s done, cross it off (yay!  celebrate! briefly!), and move on to the next one, and the next.  One scene, one paragraph, one sentence, one moment at a time.  This is how we write.  This is what it takes.

STEP SIX: CELEBRATE YOUR AWESOMENESS

When you’ve crossed off the last scene, written your 9,967th word, do yourself a favour: before you do anything else, drop down a few lines and write “THE END” in big, bold letters.  Let it sink in.  You made it!

Seriously, if there was ever a time to feel proud of yourself and celebrate how awesome you are, this is it.  Don’t you dare downplay it.  Taking a rough draft from start to finish on anything, let alone a book, let alone finishing in a weekend, is a remarkable feat.  Gather your cheerleaders, bake cupcakes, do a little dance; whatever you want to do, do it!  You deserve it.

BONUS MISSION: BE READY FOR THE AFTERMATH

I’m not going to lie: like anything that you pour your heart and soul into, especially in such a concentrated period of time, it’s going to leave you both euphoric and ragged.  Once you’ve set your book (you wrote a BOOK) aside for a week or two to let it, and yourself, rest, you might feel a bit of a letdown, like you’re not sure what to do with yourself.  Your everyday routine is waiting for you, and you’re reluctant to go back to the status quo.
Chores, work, kids, Life, that has to happen, and it’s going to happen.  But there is joy in that, not to mention fodder for our writing, and we owe it to ourselves to embrace it.  We can also, though, start a new story, or write a poem, or work on a scrapbook.  Something creative to sink our teeth into while that book rests and waits for us to return.
In the meantime, have a bit of rest yourself.  You’ve earned it!

(Psst!  If you’re antsy to get writing but are still a little unsure about this 10,000 words in a weekend stuff, check out Rachel Aaron’s post on how she went from writing 2,000 to 10,000 words a day – your productivity will soar!  Janna Kaixer also has a brilliant post on writing 10,000 words in a day, with some great tips about setting yourself up for success.)

Do you want to virtually ensure your chances of being able to power through your next writing session?  Build a solid character foundation first with my free email course.  It’s a fun, inspiring process, and the results will see you through oodles of writing blocks.  Click here or the image below to find out more!

THE YEAR OF CHARACTER

THE YEAR OF CHARACTER

I’m sitting here tonight (last night actually) working on the major characters that will be a part of my fictional book and novel series. I’ve spent much of the past week doing the same.

One invaluable thing I learned from James Patterson’s Master Class on commercial fiction is the importance of ongoing, serialized characters that others adore. I’ve known this intellectually for a long time based on my own reading history both as a youth and throughout my life (John Carter, Tarzan, Spock, Jesse Stone, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Batman, etc.) but looking back on my fiction writings I’ve realized that it hasn’t really sunken in until now. It had sunken into my mind long ago, but not into my soul. Not until now however. But now, finally, I am fully getting it.

I’ve always been a “Story-First” kind of guy and looking back upon it all I suspect I very much now know why. I was trained and self-trained to write stories through D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) and through game writing in general and D&D was indeed the very most excellent practice and training for story-development. But because I so rarely played and was almost always the DM or GM (Dungeon or Game Master) and was always the one creating worlds and writing the stories I never concentrated much at all upon “Character Development.”

That is to say I always let my players develop and run their characters with as little possible interference from me as I could ever get away with. Therefore almost all character development was in their hands and I become STORY AND PLOT AND WORLD FIRST and in many senses, I just habitually adopted the idea of STORY ONLY. Character-Work was for them, I was the World Man.

Not that I couldn’t write or develop characters, I did have several characters of my own I played and I developed some very complex Non-Player Characters (NPCs) but that kind of thing happened rather rarely compared to my World Building and plot and background elements development and so Character Development became a secondary and almost a background issue to me as a fiction writer and story teller. I realize now that I have for most of my life had this sort of subconscious psychological habit of developing stories in complex detail but sort of letting Character Development handle itself in a laissez-faire fashion when I did not outright ignore the issue.

But now that I realize this fault and oversight in my own writings, and the way I go about writing, I have decided that for me this will be the Year of the Characters. This year Characters and Serialized Characters become equally important to me as Story and Plot and World Building.

This is to be my Year of Character, and the genesis of the development of the Great Characters of my Fiction Writing Career.

This year I build Men and Characters and not just Worlds.

FIRST WORD COUNT 2373 +

AN ACCOUNTING SO FAR AND A BIT OF ADVICE FOR NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH

My Word Count output for the first day of NaNoWriMo 2015 and my novel The Old Man was 2373 words plus (I lost count after that because I wrote another scene right before bed). Today, since it is raining so hard and I can’t go help my daughter look for a new car, I plan to have an output of 3000 or more words.

I have also been using the Writing Tools I received in my NNWM writing packet along with my own Tools.

This morning I wrote what I thought was a superb introduction and set of first lines for the science-fiction part of the novel. But I still have a lot of work to do today.

Rather than in order or in linear or chronological progression I seem to be writing the book out in independent scene-sections as they occur to me. Which I’m assuming my mind will knit together in proper order later on.

I am very much enjoying working “sans editing” or by avoiding the editing altogether process as I go. This has made the writing process itself much, much easier. And this may be a better and faster way for me to write in the future, though it takes some mental effort on my part for me to get used to. Old habits die hard.

Also I am not typing anything myself but rather producing the manuscript in long-hand at my kitchen table or in bed. The way I used to write as a kid. Before I got my first typewriter in High School or my first personal computer. I very much recommend this (recently rediscovered) method. It not only produces a superior thought and plot flow, it is much more psychically comfortable than typing or dictating at my computer or office chair, both of which I detest.

Plus as I go back to hand-writing I am once again becoming very quick at it.

Tomorrow I plan to conduct a test to see how quick I am at both methods, composing at my computer, and at hand writing. I suspect I am faster at hand-writing. Certainly I enjoy it more and it is far easier to write in that way.

EITHER/OR: THE SELF PUBLISHED AUTHOR

EITHER/OR

With modern men it’s Either/Or with everything they do
You must “kill your darlings” see or they will butcher you
You must “this” or you must “that” but never both at once
There’s no room for compromise, conform, or thus you’re done

In life you cannot do it all, in art you cannot be
(so they say)
You either choose to play it small, or choose you must agree
You’re told this way is for the best by popular decree
For if you vary from that plan then there’s no guarantee

Of course there never was a risk that came with sure success
It’s Either/Or you see my friends, surely you’ll confess
That every piece of sure advice was once just enterprise
If you do not know that word it surely still applies

Now Either/Or is half of chance, I’ll grant you that is true
And both together, certain not, do not success ensue
But if you think that Either/Or by either issues Fate
Then you will soon discover kid that both will come too late

See some things they are right and just and some things they are wrong
And some things they are short, or fat, and some are tall, or long
Now of those things most modern men they treat them all the same
Evil is the twin of Good because they have no shame

Yet many things in life are not so ease-ly misconstrued
Not confused by sorcery they need some close review, and
Of those things all Either/Ors are theories in the air
Either this or never that is just a fool’s affair

The Keepers of those Mighty Gates that tell us all what is
Rarely ever venture forth in battle to enlist, and
If they do they found one way, but many paths are still
Untrodden in the hidden wastes, and through the untamed fields

So Either/Or I say to you, yes, either may be best
But you will never know that friends until them both you test…

 

____________________________________________________________

Actually, I think the writer of this piece made some good and very valid points. It just completely ignored the Or side of the equation.

 

Dear Self-Published Author: Do NOT Write Four Books a Year

Posted: 09/13/2015 1:22 am EDT Updated: 09/15/2015 11:59 am EDT
2015-09-13-1442118989-3335874-Stdtische_Bcherei_Radstadt__book_tower_detail.jpg

No matter what experts tell you, no matter what trends, conventional wisdom, social media chatter or your friends in the Facebook writers group insist upon, do NOT write four books a year. I mean it. Don’t.

Unless they’re four gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, amazingly rendered and undeniably memorable books. If you can pull off four of those a year, more power to you. But most can’t. I’d go so far as to say no one can, the qualifier being good books.

Beyond the fact that the marketplace is glutted with an overwhelming number of books already (many of dubious quality), writing good books simply takes time, lots of it. There’s no getting around that time. It involves learned skills, unhurried imagination, fastidious drafting, diligent editing, even the time to step away, then step back, to go over it all again. And, unless you’re a hack (and we know there are plenty of those out there), isn’t the whole point of this exercise to write good books?

Our most highly esteemed, widely applauded, prodigiously awarded, read and revered authors know this to be true. Donna Tartt, last year’ s Pulitzer Prize winner forThe Goldfinch, took eleven years to deliver that masterpiece. This year’s winner, Anthony Doerr, had written only four books in his entire career before penning All The Light We Cannot See, wisely taking years to craft his stunning tale. The cultishly-beloved Harper Lee had only To Kill A Mockingbird in her catalogue before this year’s controversial release of Go Set A Watchman (which some are convinced was not of her doing). Even others amongst our best, who do put out work on a more regular basis, do so with focus appropriately attuned to the quality of the book, not the depth of their catalogue or the flash-speed with which they crank out product.

But, you say, I’m not interested in writing Pulitzer Prize winners; I don’t need to be on The New York Times bestseller list; I just wanna see my name up at Amazon and sell a few books to family and friends, and, hey, if I go viral, all the better! They say write to the market, so I gotta write to the market. I mean, look at E.L. James…she’s hardly Chaucer and look what’s happened to her!!

Point taken. Which actually brings us to the point: what is your point?

What’s your point as a creative, an artist; an author? A purveyor of the written word? Why are you here, what is your purpose, your goal as a writer? What do you hope to achieve? Is it fame and fortune at any cost, quality be damned? Or is it about finely crafted work? It’s important to know, to decide, because those principles will guide and mandate every decision you make from there on out.

I bring all this up because I experienced a snap the other day, one triggered by an article from Self Published Author by Bowker titled, Discovery: Another Buzzword We’re Wrestling to Understand. In it, the writer lists many of the familiar instructions toward procuring success as an indie writer — social media, book reviews, networking, etc. — but her very first suggestion to self-published authors looking to get “discovered” was this:

Publish. A Lot: For those of you who have spent 10 years writing your last book I have news for you. You have ten days to write your next one. Okay, I’m sort of kidding with the ten days but, candidly, the most successful authors are pushing out tons of content: meaning books, not blog posts.

In most categories, readers are hungry for new reads, new books, and willing to discover new authors. You’ll have a better time getting found if you continually push new books out there. How many should you do? At a recent writers conference some authors said they publish four books a year. Yes, that’s right, four. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow.

So, her first piece of advice to self-publishing authors wasn’t to put more focus on fine-tuning one’s craft, it wasn’t about taking time to mull and ponder what stories, what narratives, most inspire you to put “pen to paper”; it wasn’t even a suggestion to be relentless about working with professional content/copy editors and cover designers to create the best possible version of your work. No, it was the insanely insane advice to pump out at least four books a year.

And people wonder why there are stigmas attached to self-publishing.

First of all, in looking at her point of reference, I suppose it depends on what you define as a “successful author.” I have a distinct feeling this may be where the disparities lie. Perhaps my own definition is a different one.

When I self-published my first book, After The Sucker Punch, in April of 2014, I had, by then, put years into it, doing all those many things I itemized above. Because I not only wanted to publish a novel, I wanted that novel to be a work of art, a book of depth and merit, one that would not only tell a compelling story but would meet standards of publishing that authors of the highest regard are held to. I wanted it to be a book that would favorably compare with anything put out by a traditional publisher. My choice to self-publish was a result of not having engaged a publisher by the time my book was done and I was ready to market it. It was not based on the notion of joining the “second tier club” where one is unbound from the stricter, more demanding standards of traditional publishing.

“Second tier club”? Yes. As insulting as that sounds, particularly in relation to self-publishing, there is no question that there are two tiers operating in the culture of the book industry. Take a moment to think about it: based on what advice is given to self-published writers, some of which I shared above; based on the”free/bargain” pricing paradigms of most book sellers hawking those writers; based on the corner (quality)-cutting measures required to pump out endless product to meet the purportedly endless demand of those sites and their bargain-hunting readers, “second tier club” is no misnomer.

Where the best of traditional publishers set their sights not only on commercial viability but award-quality work, nurturing authors with enduring skills and profound stories to tell, in a climate that is selective (perhaps too selective) and based on the notion that that level of quality and commercial appeal is a rare and valued commodity, self-published authors are advised to, “Crank out loads of books. if you have to write little teeny short ones to get your catalogue pumped up, do that! Don’t worry about covers; your readers don’t give a hoot about artwork. It’s all about genre, easy reads, and low, low prices! And speaking of low prices, don’t even think about selling your books for more than a dollar or two, because readers who do bother with self-published books are too accustomed to bargain-basement prices to spend any more than that. This is the 99¢ Bargain Circus Book Store, where we push quantity over quality every day of the week!! CRANK OUT THAT PRODUCT!!”

I’ll bet good money Donna Tartt, Anthony Doerr, and other quality writers aren’t getting that same message from their publishers. First tier, baby.

Look, if your point and purpose as a writer is largely related to the numbers — of books sold, of Amazon ranking, of reviews garnered, of Twitter followers and Facebook “likes” — then, certainly; follow the advice of the article quoted about. I know many self-published writers who are, and though I have no idea how well that’s working for them, it’s certainly the prevailing trend.

But if your point and purpose as a writer is to take someone’s breath away, capture a riveting story, translate an idea — whether fantasy, love story, science fiction, human interaction, tragedy, thriller, family saga, memoir, non-fiction — in a way that raises hairs or gets someone shouting “YES!”; if you’re compelled to tell that story so beautifully, so irreverently, with such power and prose as to make a reader stop to read a line over just to have the opportunity to roll those words around one more time, then don’t listen to that advice.

Instead, do the opposite: take your time, work your craft; look for the best possible ways to tell your story and allow yourself time to change your mind, sometimes often, until you know it’s right. Allow your editors time to help you mold your narrative into peak condition. Give your formatters and copy editors time to comb through your manuscript, again and again, to make sure everything is perfect. Work carefully with your cover artist to create the most gorgeous, most professional book cover you can. TAKE YOUR TIME.

Then take lots more to research marketing options; ask questions, weigh contradicting information, and come up with the best possible strategy for your book. Do what you choose with professionalism and without the misguided push to the “top of the list,” that pervasive attitude so rife with desperation and panic. You’re not in a race, with anyone. You are a professional author working your book your way. Be an artist, don’t be a carnival barker. Be a wordsmith, not a bean-counter. Be patient, not hysterical. Transact wisely, but don’t lose your soul in the process.

I know I’m bucking the trend, and certainly there are quality issues and dubious motivations floating around both tiers. It’s also certain that, if you follow my lead, you will not be able to write four books a year, at least not four full-length books. You will write, perhaps, one. But if you do it right, taking time and taking care, you will have written one excellent book. One you’ll be proud of years from now. One your friends and family will keep on their book shelves. One readers across the globe will talk about on social media. One that tells the world, I am a writer and this book is my legacy. Then you’ll go write another of those…and so on.

The rest of it — sales, rankings, reviews, viralness, likes, tweets, awards, kudos, peer admiration… all that? If you do it right, if/when any of those things come, they will be warranted and well-deserved. You can celebrate them authentically, because you did not sell your creative soul to get them. You actually made the far, far better deal.

CLARIFICATION- Because the last thing I want is to insult a fellow author, let me clarify, because it seems to be needed: This is NOT a screed against authors who CHOOSE to publish multiple titles annually (according to many, I’m faulty in assessing that that’s difficult to do well!), nor is it a suggestion that there is only “one way” to do things. In fact, it’s the opposite. The whole point is choice rather than mandate. When the mandate to publish in volume becomes the most prescribed way to reach success, it leaves many authors feeling pressured to publish more quickly and more often than they’d prefer, with some left feeling as though taking the time to craft a book is devalued. Neither should be true. I’m simply championing choice, the personal decisions every author makes about how they’ll reach success. For those who enjoy publishing in volume, who do it well and find it successful, that formula works. But for those who don’t, I’m suggesting forging your own way unshackled from the mandate. That is all. Best with your writing!

Book Tower photo by Herzi Pinki @ Wikimedia Commons

SUMMARY PITCH OUTLINE – HAMMER, TONGS, AND TOOLS

It’s Thursday meaning Hammer, Tongs, and Tools.

For the past few years I’ve been developing Tools to assist me in my career as a fiction writer, songwriter, and poet. In preparation for pursuing those careers.

I have decades worth of Tools regarding my business-careers as a business, copy, and non-fiction writer, and inventor (and as a poet, I’ve been a poet since I was about age 8 or so), many of which I have been posting to my Business Blog, Launch Port.

But here in Wyrdwend I’m going to start making it a habit to post some of my more useful Writing Tools in the form of Templates. I’ll arrange them all into a sellable book, or e-book, or workbook, something like that, maybe in a year or so. I’m too busy right now.

I’m giving you permission to use these tools, or to use them as idea-generators to make your own. Tools, as opposed to actual Works, I consider more public property than proprietary or personal intellectual property. Yeah, in book form I’d consider them mine, but in this form, if you find them useful, then use away.

Each week, barring some unforeseen exigency, I’ll be posting a different Tool, or a different kind of tool (writing, songwriting, poetry, etc.) that you can make use of in developing your own works. Some of these tools I modified from tools suggested to me by others, some contain partial information or design components from other sources, many are entirely my own creations.
To start I give you a very, very simple and easy to use tool. Nevertheless it should (if properly employed) contain vital and succinct information about your Work (Book or other Major Work) that you can use as an elevator pitch, to formulate a written pitch, or to simply keep the fundamental and primary elements of your work clear, distinct, and easily marketable.

SUMMARY PITCH OUTLINE

Opae (Title):

Date Begun:

ONE SENTENCE DESCRIPTION OF BOOK:

ONE PARAGRAPH DESCRIPTION OF BOOK:

ONE PAGE SYNOPSIS OF BOOK:

TWO TO THREE PAGES FULL DESCRIPTION OF BOOK:

THE PLACE WHERE… HAMMER, TONGS, AND TOOLS

I completely concur. Place is every bit as important as plot. And some places are every bit as profound as any plot. And some places are inseparable from plot.

In short place is not only a tool of plot, it is the anvil on which it is truly shaped.

Before You Can Write a Good Plot, You Need to Write a Good Place

Author Linn Ulmann makes the case for the importance of here in “Something happened here.”
Doug McLean

Linn Ulmann spent her childhood trailing her famous parents as they traveled the world. As the daughter of director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullmann, two legends of 20th-century cinema, her “home” shifted time and again. The one constant was a Swedish island, Fårö, where she returned each summer to visit her father.

Now, she’s fascinated by the way our surroundings shape us. In her interview for this series, the author of The Cold Song used a short story by Alice Munro  to illustrate the way setting drives her writing, and how place and memory help dictate the stories we tell.

The Cold Song concerns a cast of characters affected by the disappearance of Milla, a 19-year-old au pair working in a coastal town south of Oslo. After two years, her body—and the grisly manner of its death—is uncovered by three boys searching for buried treasure. With this act of violence at its heart, the novel explores the unexpected ways a crime haunts people who knew the victim, inflaming their secret sources of guilt.

Linn Ullmann is the author of five previous novels, including Before You Sleep and A Blessed Child; her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Oslo.


Linn Ullmann: When my father died six years ago, and we were selling off his property on the island of Fårö where I grew up, I kept a diary in a big, black notebook. It was a strange thing: a book that mixed notes on practical arrangements with ideas for the new book I’d started writing then. (This book was a mix of the book I did eventually write—The Cold Song—and another book I didn’t write, about the death of a father.) The notebook was a reading diary, too. In between meetings about the funeral, and what to do with his things, and how we were going to bury him, I was reading Alice Munro.

I’ve read her in many stages of my life. I love the way her voice just sucks you in, the way her stories walk you as if to the unexpected edge of a cliff, towards moments that—in their violence or sense of life-changing possibility—are like sudden free fall. During that time of mourning, I’d written down this passage from her story “Face”:

Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.

This quote—“Something had happened here”—resonated so much with me. I found it very moving because of where I was right then: starting a new book, having just lost my father, in the only place I had ever really called home. At the time, this was a very desolate island with a few sheep farmers living on it. Fårö was my home until I was three years old—and though I moved very, very many times, I returned every summer for the rest of my life, until my father died. These lines struck me on a profoundly personal level, and I had no choice but to write them down.

I’ve just re-read the story now, and am again blown away by it. It’s impossible to retell a story by Alice Munro, because there are so many ins and outs and digressions, before everything comes together in this surprising, magical way—but this is a strange love story about a boy who has a wine-colored birthmark over half his face. As a child, he’s friends with a girl about his age. Twice, she tries to make her face look like his—once, using red paint, and again later in a more permanent, devastating way. She does this out of love, or a destructive thing that love can sometimes be: “I love you so much that I want to be you.”

There’s so much else in this story, which gives the whole broad arc of the narrator’s life. We learn about his relationship with his father (who, moments after his son is born, remarks, “what a chunk of chopped liver”). We learn about his career as a successful radio actor, before TV—an industry his birthmark bars him from—takes over broadcast drama.  But what sticks, in the end, is the moment in the basement of the childhood home where the little girl splashes red paint on half her face and says, all hopeful, “Now do I look like you?”

At the time, this gesture deeply wounds the boy, and his family interprets it as an act of terrible, mocking cruelty. The two children are never allowed to see each other again. It’s only as an adult that he learns—the afternoon of his father’s funeral—that she later used a razor to cut his same mark on her face. This act—of fidelity? Of shame? Of atonement?—casts the moment in the basement in a totally different light. Perhaps she was a person who identified with him so completely, that she was willing to trade her unblemished face for his. The narrator begins to realize that exchange in the basement was a crucial moment of his life; even though he didn’t realize it at the time, it may have been the closest he ever came to having his marred face looked upon honestly but without reproach, with something like love.

There’s no big sign saying Here’s the turning point. There’s no Sliding Doors scene that tells you, “Here’s the big moment!” But by the end of the story, we sense that this is what matters most to this character, as he looks back. After the revelation at the funeral, he decides not to sell the house where he grew up, where the exchange in the basement happened, as he had planned. Instead, he lives inside it for the rest of his life.

In other words, he comes to see that the childhood house will always be his reference point, his stage of greatest significance. I think it is this way for many of us: There is maybe one place, when we look back, where something happened. Or only a few places. “And then there are all the other places,” Munro writes: important too, but not distinct, not above all else. Those precious few settings where something happened are where meaning resides—they contain the story, they are the story. Yes, I think that, to Alice Munro, story is place—the two are that deeply connected. You do not have a story of a life without an actual place. You can’t separate one from the other.

I think that’s why she’s intensely local in her fiction, like many other great writers (Faulkner, Joyce, and Proust come straight to mind). Munro’s stories unfold in remote places in Canada that I’ve never been to—but in these geographically small places, whole worlds play out. The best writers provide a sense of events unfolding in this specific place, a place that informs and feeds the characters and events. What comes first: the place or the story? The story or the place? With great fiction, it can be impossible to distinguish.

I’ve been a reader of authors who have a strong sense of place, because in my own life I’ve been somewhat placeless. I always traveled as a kid, and went to a new school every year. I lived in New York, I lived in Norway, I lived in Sweden—we travelled around, we moved, and I continued doing that into my adult life. I have been something of a placeless person—so I try to find that in literature, I guess. I seek out books and authors who are very place-specific. For me, in a way, the experience of sitting with a book is the closest thing I have to “home.”

And this reminds me of another Munro line, from her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:

There are places that you long for that you might not ever see.

Some places you never actually experience yourself, but are always important in your life anyway, even if you never go. Places you learn about through literature and other people’s stories can take on intense personal significance, as Munro’s Canadian hamlets have for me. I have this second quote written with the lines from “Face” in that big, black notebook; I probably wrote them on the same day. Somehow, I feel like these two passages—because they are about place in literature, and where things happened, whether a physical place or interior place—are what Munro is all about.

In my own work—the way I actually write—place plays an essential role, too. A choreographer I whose work I love, Merce Cunningham, was once asked, “How do you start a dance?” He said, “Well, you have to begin by showing up.” I think that’s brilliant, and it goes for writing, too. You can have all these novels in your head, all these characters and ideas, but if you don’t actually show up to your writing day—the physical place where you get the work done— you have nothing.

The characters, too, need to “show up”—the story needs to happen somewhere. Again, Munro: “Something happened here.” That line could be the epigraph to everything I write. The “here” is every bit as important as the “something happened.” For me, the two cannot exist without each other; setting and character respond to and inform one another.

When I begin writing, I need to have a place.  It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time.  If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.

In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

That’s why it’s often more fun fumbling around with notes and good ideas before the writing actually starts—it doesn’t require as much intensive listening. Most writers start out thinking “I’m going to write about such-and-such grand idea.”  That’s fine when it’s all up in your head. But the minute you start putting words down, you begin to confine yourself to certain possibilities, and you must be prepared to abandon what you thought you were writing about before.

There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her.

Place dictates who we are and how we see—this is true in life, as well as fiction. I see it in the way my father wrote about his first impressions of Fårö in his autobiography, Magic Lantern:

If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home. If one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight …. This is your landscape, Bergman. It corresponds to your innermost imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections. Security is here. Don’t ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalizations with hindsight. In, for instance, your profession, you look for simplification, proportion, exertion, relaxation, breathing. The Fårö landscape gives you a wealth of all that.

He decided because of the shape and the light and the proportions that this was where he was going to live and work. And that place is the central place in my life, too. I think probably reading these Alice Munro stories right after his death was why I copied over those quotes. They struck me—because he was dead, and also because I was mourning the fact that I was also losing my place. The island, the house on it, that’s all going to disappear now—and all the memories there, too. You cannot separate memory and place. There are certain places, if we go there, either in our writing or in reading or in life, that conjure up our deepest memories. And memories are all about who we are.

I always wondered if it really was my place. That became the big dilemma in the years after my father’s death: Was it my place, or was it his place? Places are always complicated in that way.

The island is not a place that says “Love me. Look how beautiful I am. You’ll be happy here.” It is not a place that tries to charm or seduce you. It’s beautiful in its starkness, in all its different rocky greys. There are old stone formations, called rauks, that are millions of years old. Red poppies grow in the summer. In the winter, there are countless shades of white. The surrounding sea, the Baltic Sea, is a broken sea: it’s losing oxygen, is filmed with algae on it, and very still. A dead ocean. It’s beautiful, but severe. The nature and the temperament of the whole, stark place—yes, you might fall in love with me, but I don’t know if I’m going to return your love ever. I know that I love the place, but I don’t know if the place loves me.

With some of the greatest loves you have, that’s the dilemma you have to live with.

KAZUO ISHIGURO

I mostly agree… and I’d read this.

Ten years after the publication of his last novel, Kazuo Ishiguro has come out with a new book, The Buried Giant. A former winner of the Man Booker Prize and considered one of the best British writers alive today, Ishiguro is a master of the understated. His works feature narrators that speak so simply and so plainly, they appear to have almost no affect at all. Still, their stories are dark and poignant, and it’s often not until the last few pages of an Ishiguro novel that we realize how deeply we’ve been moved.

In The Buried Giant, an elderly couple sets off on a journey through a mythical England populated by ogres, dragons, knights and giants. Axl and Beatrice are in search of their son, whom they can’t quite remember how they lost. This is because the inhabitants of The Buried Giant’s mythical world suffer a collective amnesia, a ‘mist’ that keeps them from holding onto certain memories, both personal and historical. As we travel with Axl and Beatrice, the novel asks us what memory (and forgetting) means to a person, to a couple, to a society. In many ways, the book is surprising (The New York Times calls it ‘a departure’), but it also showcases some of Ishiguro’s most essential qualities as a writer: subtle prose, a dreamlike atmosphere, and powerful questions about loss and memory.

I sat down with Ishiguro in Knopf’s office early on a Friday, just before it began to snow. We talked about his writing process, collective memory, Inglourious Basterds, and his new novel’s recent role in the conversation about genre.

Chang: Each of your novels is so unlike the one that came before it. The Buried Giant has surprised a lot of readers. Can we talk about what influenced you while you were working? What books were you reading, or drawing upon?

Ishiguro: Well, I did a great deal of research and read quite a lot before I wrote the book. But I don’t know that the books I read during the actual writing process necessarily have much to do with it.

I find that when you’re writing, it becomes quite a battle to keep your fictional world in tact. In fact, as I write, I almost deliberately avoid anything in the realm of what I’m working on. For instance, I hadn’t seen a single episode of Game of Thrones. That whole thing happened when I was quite deep into the writing, and I thought, ‘If I watch something like that, it might influence the way I visualize a scene or tamper with the world that I’ve set up.’

Chang: It sounds like the planning stage and the writing stage were two very separate parts of your process.

Ishiguro: Yes, it’s really when I’m planning the project that I actively look for ideas and read very widely. I spend a lot of time planning. I’m quite a deliberate writer in that way. A lot of writers I know just work with kind of a blank canvas. They feel it out and improvise on it and then they look to see what kind of material they’ve got.

I’ve never been able to do that. Even at the start of my career, when maybe I would have been a little more reckless. I’ve always needed to know quite a lot about the story before I start to write the actual prose. I’ve always needed a solid idea before getting started.

Chang: How do you know when you have a solid idea?

Ishiguro: It’s got to be something that I’m able to articulate to myself in about two to three sentences. And those sentences have to be compelling, much more than the sum of their parts. I should be able to feel the tension and emotion arising from that little summary I’ve created, and then I know I’ve got a project to work on. With The Buried Giant, for example, the starting point was something like: ‘There’s a whole society where people are suffering some sort of collective, and strangely selective, amnesia.’

Chang: And that was the summary you had in mind before you sat down to the page?

Ishiguro: Yes, but that’s not quite enough for an idea. That’s more of a concept. I guess if I had to write the next line of the summary, it would be, ‘There’s a couple who fears that without their shared memory, their love will vanish.’ And then the third line would be that the nation around them is in some kind of strange tense peace.

Alright, so I didn’t literally write those sentences down, but that’s how I start a project. I start with something quite abstract like that, and then I start to plan and do my research.

I tend to read quite a lot of non-fiction around the themes I want to explore.

Chang: Are you fairly careful about curating what you do read or think about while you plan a novel?

Ishiguro: Not necessarily. For this book in particular, I read a very good Canadian book called Long Shadows by Erna Paris, It was written in the early 2000s and documents her travels, looking at the various kinds of brewing or buried trouble. There was also Postwar by Tony Judt, and Peter Novich’s The Holocaust in American Life.

Now, those nonfiction books went into it the research part, but I find that almost anything around that point can be influential. Around that stage is when I’m most sensitive, or most open to influence. Almost every movie I see, every book I’m reading, I’m thinking: ‘Is there something here that might nudge me toward an image, or an idea, or even a technique?’

I remember I happened to be watching Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds at a formative point. There’s a long scene where the American guys are in a German bar, pretending to be German soldiers, and they’re playing this game and speaking in bad German, and it goes on for this incredible amount of time. You know it’s going to end in some terrible violence, but it goes on and on.

That seems to have nothing to do with my book. No one would detect Tarantino as an influence while reading The Buried Giant, but I thought it was such a great way to deal with an explosion of violence. You actually don’t have to spend a lot of energy on the violence itself. It’s the lead up, the tension. So, yes, I’m quite open to reading or hearing or seeing anything at that point in the process.

Chang: What was behind the decision in setting The Buried Giant in a mythical, medieval England? Did you know this would surprise people the way it has?

Ishiguro: Often the setting comes quite late in the process. I usually have the whole story, the whole idea, and then I hunt for the location, for a place where I can set it down.

It’s sort of like I’ve wandered into people’s countries without knowing where I’ve landed.

So I’m a little bit naïve, maybe, about what the finished thing will look like in terms of genre. It’s sort of like I’ve wandered into people’s countries without knowing where I’ve landed. And after I’ve been there for quite some time, someone says ‘you realize you’re in Poland now.’ And I say, ‘Oh really? I just followed this trail of stuff I needed.’

I didn’t wonder how people would define or categorize The Buried Giant until it was done. And then as publication approached, I started to see it from the outside. I’d been so absorbed with trying to get the thing to work from the inside.

I did think about setting it in a very real contemporary, tense situation. I considered Bosnia in the 1990s as a setting, and well, I thought about Rwanda but didn’t consider it for too long, because I feel unqualified to write about Africa. I know so little about African politics, African culture. The disintegration of Yugoslavia I felt closer to, because I live in Europe. These massacres were occurring right on our doorstep. I wanted to look at a situation in which a generation (or two) has been living uneasily in peace, where different ethnic groups have been coexisting peaceably and then something happens that reawakens a tribal or societal memory.

Chang: What made you ultimately decide on this more distant reality?

Ishiguro: Well, if I had done that you’d be asking me why I was suddenly interested in Yugoslavia, and if I have relatives that used to go there, and what do I think about what Milosevic did or said on this or that day.  It becomes a completely different kind of book. Some people write those kinds of books brilliantly. It’s almost like reportage. They’re very powerful and very urgent books.

Maybe in the future I’ll feel compelled to write that kind of specific and current book, but right now I feel that my strength as a fiction writer is my ability to take a step back. I prefer to create a more metaphorical story that people can apply to a variety of situations, personal and political.

Setting the book in an other, magical world allows me to do that. Every society, every person even, has some buried memories of violence or destruction. The Buried Giant asks whether awakening these buried things might lead to another terrible cycle of violence. And whether it’s better to do this at the risk of cataclysm, or whether it’s better to keep these memories buried and forgotten.

The same question applies at the personal level, say, in a marriage. When is it better to just leave certain things unsaid for the sake of getting on together? Is there something phony about a relationship if you don’t face everything that’s happened? Maybe it makes your love less real.

Chang: Do you feel that the conversation about genre boundaries, which has been a major focus of the book’s reviews and press, has taken away from these questions the book is asking?

It’s a much broader conversation, isn’t it? What do we call fantasy?

Ishiguro: I didn’t actually anticipate that there would be so much attention paid to the genre of the book. I read Neil Gaiman’s review in the NYTBR which opens with the words, “Fantasy is a tool of the storyteller.” It’s a very interesting piece that, in a way, is much bigger than my book. It’s a much broader conversation, isn’t it? What do we call fantasy? What do we call sci-fi? I guess the subtext is that mainstream fiction and literary fiction look down on fantasy tropes but, as Gaiman argues, those tropes can be very powerful, and they’re part of an ancient tradition. There were a couple of other pieces that appeared like that. And of course, there was a bit of a spat with Ursula K LeGuin. Although, she’s since retracted what she said on her blog, which was gracious of her. I think it’s a much larger dialogue she’s been involved with in the past with authors like Margaret Atwood, for example.

I think the positive side of all of this is that it is quite an exciting time at the moment in fiction. I do sense the boundaries are breaking down, for readers and for writers. Younger readers move very freely between genres and between what used to be fairly strict categories of ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction. My daughter and her generation, for example. They were quite literally the same age as Harry and Hermione when the first Harry Potter book was published. In a way, they kind of followed that whole storyline in real time, year by year.

For that generation, one of the coolest, most exciting things to happen in their young lives was reading books. Of course, now they read widely just like any person interested in literature, but their foundation, their love of books is based on Harry Potter, Philip Pullman—that whole explosion of very intelligent children’s literature that they grew up with. It’s very exciting, I think—this shift in what constitutes ‘serious’ fiction.

Chang: Even though The Buried Giant has arguably nothing to do with Japan, I love the way there’s still something Japanese that comes across in its style and tone. Are you very conscious of language and tone when you are writing or does that come more naturally?

Ishiguro: At the beginning of my career it was quite deliberate. A Pale View of Hills was set in Japan. My characters were Japanese, so of course they had to speak in a Japanese kind of English. And in An Artist of the Floating World, the characters were not only Japanese but they were meant to be speaking in Japanese even though it was written in English, so I spent a great deal of energy there finding an English that suggested there was Japanese being spoken or translated through. Maybe some of that effort has stayed with me. I use a formal, careful kind of English, but to some extent that may just be my natural or preferred way of using the language.

For example, the butler in Remains of the Day is English, but he often sounds quite Japanese. And I thought that was fine, because he is a bit Japanese.

Chang: Right, that’s one of the brilliant parts of his character.

Ishiguro: In The Buried Giant, I wasn’t thinking consciously about Japan or Japanese, but the priorities of the language, I suppose, are still the same. I quite like language that suppresses meaning rather than language that goes groping after something that’s slightly beyond the words. I’m interested in speech that kind of conceals and covers up. I’m not necessarily saying that’s Japanese. But I suppose it goes with a certain kind Japanese aesthetic; a minimalism and simplicity of design that occurs over and over again in Japanese things, you know. I do like a flat, plain surface where the meaning is subtly pushed between the lines rather than overtly expressed. But I don’t know if that’s Japanese, or if that’s just me.

IT’S NOT JUST WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S WHAT YOU IMPLY BY OMISSION

This statement is entirely true: “It’s what is left out of the song that keeps us coming back for answers.”

This image, and the accompanying lyrics, are superb examples of this.

Lyric Of The Week: Traditional, “Barbara Allen”

Written by March 9th, 2015 at 8:40 am

Forget_Me_Not_Songster_-_Barbara_Allen_p.1It’s been beguiling audiences for a half-millennium or so, perhaps longer than that. It’s been covered by artists ranging from the sublime (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Everly Brothers) to the slightly ridiculous (John Travolta and, in the 1951 Warner Brothers short “Robin Hood Daffy”, Porky Pig.) So what is it about “Barbara Allen” that makes it so enduring and affecting?

The first known reference to this mysteriously captivating folk ballad dates back to 1666, in an entry by the famed English diarist Samuel Pepys. Pepys called it a “Scotch song”, and it flourished throughout the United Kingdom in that era until it was brought to the U.S. by immigrants. As the population of the America slowly spread westward, the song went with it, as noted by famed musicologist Alan Lomax in his book The Folk Songs Of North America. “This ballad, if no other, travelled west with every wagon,” Lomax wrote. “As someone remarked, they sang ‘Barbara Allen’ in Texas ‘before the pale faces were thick enough to make the Indians consider a massacre worthwhile.”

What transpires in “Barbara Allen” is simple enough on the surface. Yet since the lyrics provide little exposition or back story, the reasons for the behavior of the main participants are enigmatic. The song tells the story of young William who, as he lies on his deathbed, calls out for Barbara. She takes her time getting to his side, only to treat him coldly due to a social foul he committed against her at a tavern. On her journey home, she hears the “death bell knellin” and, knowing it tolls for William’s death, suddenly regrets her hardness and knows she will soon die of grief for him.

Harsh stuff, right? Maybe too harsh, even for audiences who were used to Shakespeare’s plays and their numerous deaths. As such, a variant on the song quickly arose that included a leavening epilogue whereby the lovers are buried side-by-side. From William’s grave grows a rose, from Barbara’s a briar, and the two flowers eventually intertwine, providing the deceased pair eternal unison.

It’s whats left out of the song that keeps us coming back for answers. If all William did was drink a toast to the wrong ladies, surely he didn’t deserve treatment so nasty from a girl he truly loved. Or was this single incident indicative of his wayward behavior as a whole? And what changed in Barbara’s mind and heart from the time she left him to when she heard that bell? In that short journey, she transformed from hard-hearted to sympathetic without any middle ground spent in consideration of all that had transpired.

This sort of unexplainable behavior from characters was also emblematic of Shakespeare (think King Lear or Hamlet), so maybe the original writer had that kind of strangeness in mind. It makes the song more psychologically realistic, since we all tend to do things when guided by passion or spite that defy logic and reason.

The murkiness of the motives and the beauty of the melody is an irresistible combination. As such, many legendary contemporary artists have found the song irresistible. Dylan, for one, not only covered “Barbara Allen” at various times in his career, but he also used Barbara’s home base of “Scarlet Town” as a jumping-off point for an equally mysterious song on 2012’s Tempest.

While there have been many powerful and moving renditions of “Barbara Allen”, Art Garfunkel may have given the definitive modern reading on his 1973 solo album Angel Clare.  Whatever lesson you take from the song, whether it’s that even a moment of taking the one you love for granted can come back to haunt you, or that life is too short for petty grievances, you’ll likely be mesmerized by the mercy Garfunkel’s ethereal vocal grants these two lovers. It’s just too bad they didn’t show each other that same kind of mercy until it was far too late.

WRITING FOR E-KIDS

As someone who writes books for kids, and enjoys writing books for kids, I both enjoyed this article and found it quite useful.

How to Create Picture Ebooks for Kids

Picture ebooks

Today’s guest post is by Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider and Picture eBook Mastery.


Until recently, creating ebook versions of children’s picture books was something publishers reserved for their best-selling authors and illustrators. If you wanted to self-publish a picture ebook, you either needed to be a whiz at writing code, or you paid an ebook creation service to do it for you. (That said, it was possible to find a few services targeted toward publishing books for kids on Apple devices, such as Book Creator.)

Last September, Amazon released KDP Kids’ Book Creator, which allows the average Joe to create illustrated children’s books for the Kindle and upload them directly to Amazon. These books can be designed in the landscape format (to mimic the layout of print picture books) and can include text pop-ups that enlarge the text with a tap or a click, making it easier to read.

Side note: Using the KDP Kids’ Book Creator means you’re publishing through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. You can choose from several royalty structures within that program, and also choose whether or not to be included in KDP Select, which gives Amazon exclusive distribution of your ebook for a certain time period in exchange for marketing perks.

While the KDP Kids’ Book Creator still has a few rough spots (which Amazon is presumably ironing out in response to user feedback), it’s a good start. Those of us who have worked in children’s publishing for years recognized this move for what it was: a game changer.

Just how much has Amazon’s new free software changed the game?

With the release of the Kid’s Book Creator, as well as the Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition tablet, Amazon is investing in illustrated ebooks. And they need content.

So now comes the big question. Are you ready to ride this wave?

Not every self-published picture ebook will make it. Many will slip into oblivion as soon as they’re released.

Does Your Book Have a Fighting Chance?

Here are some positive signs.

You have a book that appeals to a niche market. Often publishers reject a manuscript simply because there isn’t a big enough audience to justify their expense to bring it to fruition. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the book shouldn’t exist. You’ll just have to make an effort to directly reach the consumers searching for the specific topic in your book.

If your story features a child with certain food allergies and how he must navigate snack time in preschool, you can write guest posts for parenting blogs that focus on these issues, or even blogs about nutrition and cooking. Many mommy bloggers welcome guest posts about all aspects of child care, and you can mention your book in your bio.

You already have a good online following. Jessica Shyba’s popular blog Momma’s Gone City, featuring photographs of her toddler and puppy at naptime, prompted publisher Jean Feiwel to offer her a two-book deal. Naptime with Theo & Beau was published by Feiwel and Friends in February, with a huge social media campaign using the hashtag #theoandbeau.

Could Shyba have chosen to self-publish the book and do the same thing? Sure. These days, authors and illustrators reach readers directly via their blogs, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels. Even if your blog is attracting the kind of people who would buy your picture book, you still have a potential customer base.

You want to begin establishing yourself as a professional author or illustrator. Waiting for an agent or editor to say yes can take months or years of submissions. Getting two or three picture ebooks out now means you’re working on creating a name for yourself and building a platform. If you do these books well, and market them smartly, you can build a reputation that can lead to more opportunities and possibly traditional book deals.

You have taken the time to study your craft. The quality of your work will be compared to those authors and illustrators who appear on the bestseller lists, so it must stand up to the scrutiny. Take classes in picture book writing and design, attend workshops, join a critique group, hire a professional editor. You want, and need, for your book to garner five-star reviews on Amazon, and not just from your mother. 

Why Your Book Might Not Make It

Your book has been rejected 25 times and you’re tired of submitting. Self-publishing won’t fix the flaws in a manuscript that had received nothing but form rejections from editors. Nor will it camouflage an ill-conceived story or writing that doesn’t appeal to the intended audience. You first need to figure out why the manuscript was rejected, and fix the problem.

You don’t have a solid marketing strategy. Complain all you want, but there is no way around it—if you want to sell books, you’ve got to market. And this goes for authors who are traditionally published as well. Don’t expect to post a link to your book on all your friends’ Facebook pages and call it a day.

You lack quality illustrations. This is crucial if you want your picture ebook to attract an audience. Remember that your first sales tool is your cover, and your second sales tool will be the first two pages of your book if you have Amazon’s Look Inside feature. If your illustrations look amateurish, the overall impression you’re giving potential customers is that this is not a professional product.

If you’re not an illustrator yourself, get the best illustrations you can afford. Start by checking the rates of some experienced illustrators. You can search the Illustrator Gallery of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, or find freelance illustrators at sites like elance.com.

If you decide to design your own illustrations, it’s wise to take a graphic design class so you learn the basics of font choices, image placement, and how things fit together best on a small screen. And speaking of the smaller screen, remember that the images should be clear and without too many tiny details so they can be easily viewed on a Kindle or iPad.

At the very least, the biggest hurdle toward successfully self-publishing picture ebooks doesn’t need to be the technology. Trust me, the KDP Kids’ Book Creator software is easy to use. Hundreds of authors and illustrators have already taken advantage of this opportunity, and are selling their books on Amazon—and they’re not all young upstarts who could use an app before they were potty trained!

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Laura Backes

For 25 years, Laura Backes has published Children’s Book Insider, The Children’s Writing Monthly. She is the co-creator of Picture eBook Mastery, an online course on how to use the KDP Kids’ Book Creator software to produce, upload and market picture ebooks on Amazon. To get her free, four-part mini video course, “Yes, You Can Publish a Kindle Picture eBook!” go to www.pictureebookmastery.com/yesyoucan. Laura can be reached through writeforkids.org.

THE EXERCISES

Writing Exercises Scientifically Proven To Redirect Your Life

Need to find a new direction or reclaim inspiration? Grab a pen and paper. These writing exercises can help.

We’re total suckers for self improvement: The self-help industry brings in billions of dollars each year from countless books. All that encouraging advice can feel empowering and commonsensical, offering a simple path to a better life.

But there’s a problem with this approach. “Reading a self-help book is like buying a lottery ticket,” writes social psychologist Timothy Wilson in his newest book Redirect. “For a small investment, we get hope in return; the dream that all our problems will soon be solved without any real expectation that they will be.”

While the power of positive thinking—the seeming bread and butter of self-help as we know it—is a nice thought, according to Wilson, there’s no evidence that simply thinking positively actually works. We can’t just will ourselves to be happier a-la The Secret. “Our minds aren’t that stupid,” says Wilson. “It’s not like you can just tell you mind, ‘Think positively.’ You’ve got to nudge it a little more along.”

In Redirect, Wilson offers an alternative he calls “story editing,” based on the research of social scientists over the years. This approach operates off the premise that we each have a core narrative or story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what the world around us is like. It’s a story that influences our choices and way of experiencing the world. But it’s also one we play a major role in shaping for ourselves.

Using specific writing exercises, according to Wilson, we can begin to shift that story and redirect our way of thinking. “Writing is an act of creation. You are creating as you go,” he says. “That’s what can make this personally so helpful.”

Write through a challenging problem

We can never simply write painful or difficult events out of our lives, but we can make them far more graspable and change our relationship to them, according to research by psychologist James Pennebaker. Over the years, Pennebaker has developed an approach he calls “Writing To Heal,” that uses writing exercises as a way to help people deal with difficult events their lives.

To try the Pennebaker writing exercise, think of an event or worry that’s been most on your mind recently. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the day to write about that specific problem. Do this for four days in a row, setting aside at least 15 minutes at the end of each day to record your thoughts. As you write, don’t pause or second-guess yourself—just write without stopping.

Through his research over the years, Pennebaker found that this simple four-day exercise helped improve people’s health, and well-being in various studies. “It’s how we deal with setbacks that’s so important,” says Wilson, who has worked with Pennebaker over the years. While the writing exercise can be difficult at first, people tend to gain clarity as they continue doing it. “Often what they first write is jumbled and unorganized,” says Wilson. But eventually “they view what happened to them in a way that makes more sense.”

Distance yourself from negative experiences

Research has also shown that having some distance from a difficult event allows us to step back and better understand it. There’s a writing exercise Wilson calls the “step-back-and-ask-why” approach that allows us to create this distance and understanding in order to reframe negative events.

To do this exercise, close your eyes and bring yourself back to a specific moment or event that was upsetting to you. Then, in your mind, try to take a few steps back from yourself in the moment so that you can see the story unfolding as if it was happening to a distant version of yourself. Write about what that distant version of yourself is thinking and feeling. One way to do this effectively, suggests Wilson, is to write in the third person, rather than the first person, which automatically builds some seperation between you and the moment you’re writing about.

Don’t simply rehash a play-by-play of what happened; instead, try to explain why it happened. “Don’t recount the event,” Wilson writes. “Take a step back and reconstrue and explain it.”

Determine what your best possible self looks like

There’s a reason Saturday Night Live‘s “Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley” was such a hit in the ’90s. That focus on self-affirming mantras is practically begging to be made fun of, yet even today, you’ll find that same advice given in total earnest.

But as Wilson points out in his book, rather than telling yourself you’re doing the best you can and are the best you can be—a pretty text-book self-help mantra—try actually imagining what the best version of yourself might look like in the future and what you need to do to achieve those goals.

He calls this writing prompt the “Best Possible Selves Exercise.” Like the Pennebaker prompt, take 15 to 20 minutes a night for four nights in a row to do this exercise. Imagine your life in the future as if you’ve achieved all your life goals. Write not just what those life goals are, but also how you will be able to achieve them. “Focus on the process of achieving an outcome rather than the outcome itself,” says Wilson.

Imagine all the things that could have gone wrong

Gratitude journals are another self-help go-to, but research has shown they can actually have the reverse effect of making you feel less happy. There’s a pleasure to uncertainty—not being able to pin down the specific details of an event were was pleasing.

While reducing our uncertainty about negative events can help us bounce back from them more quickly, reducing uncertainty about positive events can take some of the pleasure out of them. Wilson calls this a pleasure paradox: “People want to understand the good things in life so that they can experience them again, but by doing so they reduce the pleasure they get from those events,” he writes.

For example, research has shown that asking people in a relationship to tell the story of how they met their partner doesn’t make them particularly happier. But ask those same people to write about the many ways in which they might not have met their partner or their relationship might not have worked out and they get much more pleasure out of the exercise. “People don’t like to do that, but when they do, it makes the relationship look special again, at least for a little while,” he says.

This translates well into a writing exercise Wilson calls the “George Bailey Technique” named after the protagonist in It’s A Wonderful Life. For this exercise, think of one of the most important or special events, relationships or accomplishments in your life. Then imagine all the ways in which it might not have happened. Doing this can introduce mystery and excitement back into the experience again.

Maintain a sense of purpose

These last two exercises aren’t so much writing prompts, as they are calls to action. In their studies of what make people feel happiest and most fulfilled, social scientists have found that having a clear sense of purpose is critical. This means reminding yourself of what your most important goals in life are and finding ways to move forward on those goals, says Wilson.

He identifies three ingredients to well-being: hope, meaning, and purpose. Writing exercises that help reframe the way you feel about negative events in the past can help create a sense of hope and meaning, but it’s also important to maintain goals that provide a sense of purpose in your life. “We all have some choice over what we want to pursue and those of us who are really lucky can get paid to do it, but plenty of people find other ways,” says Wilson.

Do some good in the world

Research has shown that it’s not simply having a sense of purpose that contributes to our well-being, but that those who help others are actually happier than those who don’t. These people have a greater likelihood of forming bonds with others and having a positive image of themselves.

“If you want to have a positive outlook and feel like a good person, go out and be a good person,” says Wilson. “The mind is a very good observer of ourselves.”

CREATIVE WORK RELEASE

I almost never face Writer’s Block. I almost always have the opposite problem, too many ideas to pursue at once.

But for those who do have Writer’s Block problems then maybe this will help.

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

by

“When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored my all-time favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download), this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

Illustration by Tove Jansson for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the beloved author’s thoughts on happiness, morality, religion, identity, and much more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then fortify this particular bit with the psychology of the perfect writing routine and more ideas on overcoming creative block from Brian Eno, Carole King, and some of today’s most exciting creators.

THE DARK ARTS

THE DARK ARTS – definitely worth the read and the reblog

Having worked a couple of corporate espionage cases myself, from the counter-espionage/defensive side of things, a couple of these articles were useful and fascinating.

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS?

A good one from a friend of mine…

Goal Setting for Writers (Firsts in Fiction with Aaron Gansky)

In our latest Firsts in Fiction program, Aaron Gansky and I chat about how writers can set goals for the new year and how goals for writers differ from goals of others.

Firsts in Fiction is a weekly netcast designed to help new novelists and other writers of fiction get a proper start. It’s also a fun place to hangout. It is broadcast live at 6:30 pm Pacific each Wednesday on Google Hang Outs. The show is posted later on YouTube, http://www.aarongansky.com, and here at http://www.altongansky.com. The audio version can also be heard on iTunes or Stitcher. Click on the Firsts in Fiction tab above for more.

Enjoy.

 

– See more at: http://altongansky.typepad.com/writersconferences/2015/01/goal-setting-for-writers-firsts-in-fiction-with-aaron-gansky.html#sthash.m2NM0lNa.dpuf

11 STEP GUIDE TO SCENE/SCREEN WRITING

11 STEP GUIDE TO SCENE/SCREEN WRITING

This is not my Tool, I did not write or create it. Nevertheless I think it is a very useful tool, and one worth using.

NOT THE WAY

Friday, December 12, 2014

How NOT to Query an Agent

Working for a literary agent, definitely has its moments of hilarity. My most recent reason to LOL? I was pitched to.

Yes. Me. The administrative assistant. And here is the crazy part: I was pitched a manuscript to an email address that really isn’t really common knowledge. And on top of that: I don’t get the query emails. That goes to a completely different person.

So why did it come to me, you ask?

I have no idea. Which prompted this post: how NOT to query a literary agent. Sharpen your pencils; get out your note pads, this is going to be riveting (and maybe save you the embarrassment of making easy, amateur mistakes)

  • You hear it everywhere. You’re about to hear it here too: READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES ON OUR WEBSITE. Yes, I just used about every function on the Word program to emphasize that statement. Seriously, all your problems will be solved if you take a few minutes to get these few facts straight. When you do, you’re a sight for sore eyes for those of us who get the queries (or shouldn’t get the queries as the case may be…)
  • Don’t put your entire chapter outline/back cover copy/reasons why you wrote this story in the query letter. Take an hour (or two) and Google query letters. Figure out how to write a good one. Have a critique partner give it a once-over (at the least). This is your first impression. It needs to be a good—GREAT—one.
  • Don’t tell the agent that you are going to be “the next NYT bestseller” or “Nicolas Sparks” or “Janet Oke”. Yes, these things just came through in a query letter that landed in my inbox. And if you are going to claim to be the next hot name, please be sure to at least spell it right.
  • Don’t tell the agent that you need them to publish their book. Um, excuse me, but duh. Be humble when you approach an agent. They have a ton on their plate. Usually many, many authors that they are managing their books and careers. To take the time to read your next best synopsis is a chunk of time out of their day. Realize that it’s not all about your needs and frame the tone of your query accordingly.
  • Don’t give your life story. The reason why you wrote the book. The story behind the story. Nothing. Don’t go there. Stay away. The agent doesn’t care. Now, if he/she picks up the book, reads it, signs you to their agency and you become friends, well, then yes, you probably will tell them the why behind the book. But right now you’re not BFFs, you’re strangers. You wouldn’t walk up to a handsome stranger-dude at a cocktail party, stick out your hand and tell him all about your dog dying when you were four, right away would you? Of course not. Don’t do that to the agent you are querying either.

Yes, that’s a lot of don’ts. Believe it or not, these all came out of a query letter I should have never gotten this week. So: read the guidelines. Write a pithy, word-catchy query. Have a great product to share with the agent. Be humble. Be patient. Email the right person and you won’t become an illustration on some agent’s blog anytime in the near future. 😉

CLOSE TO HUMAN

The Art of Close Writing

By posted at 6:00 am on August 5, 2014 10

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coverJonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.

To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.

Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.

And later:

Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?

When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.

coverHow important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.

covercoverGenerally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue’” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a  grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.

Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.

Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:

Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?

Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.

coverMoreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.

Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:

Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?

Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.

Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.

Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.

>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first.  Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:

Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.

He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”

The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.

coverThe last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:

He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.

That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.

Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.

EXPERIENCE IT FIRST – LIVING OUT YOUR STORY

I have, over time, developed a new technique for writing Fictional Stories. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now but have recently gotten to be very good at it.

At night, right after I cut out the light and am laying in the dark, I turn to some novel or story I’m writing. I then visualize part of the story or a scene from the story in my mind as if I’m one of the characters. Then try to see it in my head as if it were an actual experience that I am part of.

At first I did this as if I were seeing a film or movie or play (from a third person point of view). But then I decided that I would do away with that step entirely and simply insert myself into the scene and have the scene unfold as if it were a real (and not recorded) experience. Instead of thinking in terms of words and pictures and stories and characters now I’m “experiencing fictional reality” in my head as if these experiences are real and occurring to me. In that way it’s not hard to transform these scenes into artificial (or maybe a better term would be parallel, or virtual) memories and then when I take to writing again it’s much more like remembering something you’ve already experienced than making it up. First I experience the scene, from beginning to end, and only then write it, but not just from imagination, from memory. This seems to have two effects: it makes writing fiction much more fun, because even though it’s fiction it is like it is real, and secondly it seems to have improved the overall literary quality of my fiction. Especially from the point of view of characterization and dialogue. In other words the story becomes “hot” in your own mind and a “personal experience” rather than just the imagined experiences of your characters.

I’ve gotten pretty good at it with much practice. The other night I saw a ship in a fictional story which was unlike any ship design I’ve ever seen before, complete with a different type of mast and rigging system (it was a sailing ship in a fantasy story) and overall design that I didn’t think I would have ever considered or considered writing about had it not been for the “experience it first technique.”

But because I experienced it first the ship was, well, it was like I was both the ship designer (shipwright) and the boat master of the voyage. I think I may have developed something very useful here, because doing it this way it’s less like writing than it is experiential, and my mind doesn’t get divided into “writer” or “inventor” but different aspects of my mind all seem to work in synthesis.

I am calling the Technique, “Experiential Fiction,” or “Remembered/Memory Fiction.”

By the way, this is much more like writing fiction as if you were writing a song or a poem, by experience and memory, rather than entirely through imagination and invention. Although in your own mind you must first imagine and invent the story.

But this is far easier to do by taking your own prior experiences and memories and simply rearranging them in a newly imagined fashion through your mental and psychological storyline rather than trying to imagine your story “cold.”

I also think this would be an excellent technique for both game design, and for invention, and recently I have been experimenting with using the technique to do both.

SETTING THE STAGE

Brain’s reaction to virtual reality should prompt further study, suggests new research

by Stuart Wolpert
brain
Credit: Rice University
UCLA neurophysicists have found that space-mapping neurons in the brain react differently to virtual reality than they do to real-world environments. Their findings could be significant for people who use virtual reality for gaming, military, commercial, scientific or other purposes.

“The pattern of activity in a region involved in spatial learning in the virtual world is completely different than when it processes activity in the ,” said Mayank Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics, neurology and neurobiology in the UCLA College and the study’s senior author. “Since so many people are using , it is important to understand why there are such big differences.”

The study was published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The scientists were studying the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. The hippocampus also plays an important role in forming new memories and creating mental maps of space. For example, when a person explores a room, hippocampal become selectively active, providing a “cognitive map” of the environment.

The mechanisms by which the brain makes those cognitive maps remains a mystery, but neuroscientists have surmised that the hippocampus computes distances between the subject and surrounding landmarks, such as buildings and mountains. But in a real maze, other cues, such as smells and sounds, can also help the brain determine spaces and distances.

To test whether the hippocampus could actually form spatial maps using only visual landmarks, Mehta’s team devised a noninvasive virtual reality environment and studied how the in the brains of rats reacted in the virtual world without the ability to use smells and sounds as cues.

Researchers placed a small harness around rats and put them on a treadmill surrounded by a “virtual world” on large video screens—a virtual environment they describe as even more immersive than IMAX—in an otherwise dark, quiet room. The scientists measured the rats’ behavior and the activity of hundreds of neurons in their hippocampi, said UCLA graduate student Lavanya Acharya, a lead author on the research.

The researchers also measured the rats’ behavior and neural activity when they walked in a real room designed to look exactly like the virtual reality room.

The scientists were surprised to find that the results from the virtual and real environments were entirely different. In the virtual world, the rats’ hippocampal neurons seemed to fire completely randomly, as if the neurons had no idea where the rat was—even though the rats seemed to behave perfectly normally in the real and virtual worlds.

“The ‘map’ disappeared completely,” said Mehta, director of a W.M. Keck Foundation Neurophysics center and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. “Nobody expected this. The neuron activity was a random function of the rat’s position in the virtual world.”

Explained Zahra Aghajan, a UCLA graduate student and another of the study’s lead authors: “In fact, careful mathematical analysis showed that neurons in the virtual world were calculating the amount of distance the rat had walked, regardless of where he was in the virtual space.”

They also were shocked to find that although the rats’ hippocampal neurons were highly active in the real-world environment, more than half of those neurons shut down in the virtual space.

The virtual world used in the study was very similar to virtual reality environments used by humans, and neurons in a rat’s brain would be very hard to distinguish from neurons in the human brain, Mehta said.

His conclusion: “The neural pattern in virtual reality is substantially different from the activity pattern in the real world. We need to fully understand how virtual reality affects the brain.”

Neurons Bach would appreciate

In addition to analyzing the activity of , Mehta’s team studied larger groups of the brain cells. Previous research, including studies by his group, have revealed that groups of neurons create a complex pattern using brain rhythms.

“These complex rhythms are crucial for learning and memory, but we can’t hear or feel these rhythms in our brain. They are hidden under the hood from us,” Mehta said. “The complex pattern they make defies human imagination. The neurons in this memory-making region talk to each other using two entirely different languages at the same time. One of those languages is based on rhythm; the other is based on intensity.”

Every neuron in the hippocampus speaks the two languages simultaneously, Mehta said, comparing the phenomenon to the multiple concurrent melodies of a Bach fugue.

Mehta’s group reports that in the , the language based on rhythm has a similar structure to that in the real world, even though it says something entirely different in the two worlds. The language based on intensity, however, is entirely disrupted.

When people walk or try to remember something, the activity in the hippocampus becomes very rhythmic and these complex, rhythmic patterns appear, Mehta said. Those rhythms facilitate the formation of memories and our ability to recall them. Mehta hypothesizes that in some people with learning and memory disorders, these rhythms are impaired.

“Neurons involved in memory interact with other parts of the hippocampus like an orchestra,” Mehta said. “It’s not enough for every violinist and every trumpet player to play their music flawlessly. They also have to be perfectly synchronized.”

Mehta believes that by retuning and synchronizing these rhythms, doctors will be able to repair damaged memory, but said doing so remains a huge challenge.

“The need to repair memories is enormous,” noted Mehta, who said neurons and synapses—the connections between neurons—are amazingly complex machines.

Previous research by Mehta showed that the hippocampal circuit rapidly evolves with learning and that brain rhythms are crucial for this process. Mehta conducts his research with rats because analyzing complex brain circuits and neural activity with high precision currently is not possible in humans.

ALL GREAT LITERATURE from MEMORABLE LITERARY LINES

All great literature can ultimately be reduced to three basic pronouns: I, you, and us.

LE GUIN’S GOOD ADVICE

By the way I’ve said for years that “Show, don’t tell” may just be the single most juvenile and straight-jacketing piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard in my life. Show, don’t tell is an appropriate device for certain genres and in certain situations, it is the kiss of death for great literature and poetry.

 

 

10 Writing Tips from Ursula Le Guin

At the National Book Awards a few nights ago, Ursula Le Guin was honored with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a fancy sounding award that basically means she’s the bomb (she really is).

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin for a long time, since I first discovered The Earthsea Cycle, which re-invigorated my love for fantasy.

She’s also famous for her science-fiction, especially The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and was one of the first to show the world that women can not only write great science-fiction, they can often do it better than men.

Le Guin is a “genre” writer who constantly worked to push the boundaries of what we think of as genre. Besides sci-fi and fantasy, she wrote poetry, creative non-fiction, and literary fiction.

I honestly believe she will go down in history as one of the greatest writers, literary or otherwise, of the 20th century.

Ursula Le Guin’s Quotes on Writing

With that in mind, here are ten quotes from Ursula Le Guin on her process as a writer:

1. “Show, Don’t Tell” is for Beginners

From ursulakleguin.com:

Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.… This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.

2. So Is “Write What You Know”

From ursulakleguin.com:

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.

3. Do Your Job as a Writer, and Do it Really Well

From Paris Review:

But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer (tweet that, emphasis mine). I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.

4. Shoot for the Top, Always.

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

From Paris Review:

When asked what authors she measures her work against, Le Guin says:

Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top? (tweet that)

5. Write Like Who You Are

From Paris Review:

Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.

6. Learn from the Greats

From Paris Review:

It was Borges and Calvino who made me think, Hey, look at what they’re doing! Can I do that?

7. Writing is All About Learning to See

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

From Paris Review:

A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception. (tweet that)

I love this, by the way. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quote, “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

8. Begin Your Story with a Voice

From Paris Review:

How should you begin your story?

With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.

9. Focus on the Rhythm of the Story

From Paris Review:

I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey—you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.

10. Don’t Waste Time

From Paris Review:

And one of [the things you learn as you get older] is, you really need less… My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there…. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

How about you? What do you love about Ursula Le Guin? What has she taught you about writing?

PRACTICE

Use tip #5 and write like who you really are.  Write like a woman or a man or an American or an alien or an Ursula Le Guin or a Joe Bunting. Write just as you are.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

THE ABILITY HOARD

This is an introductory essay I wrote for my gaming blog but it has far wider applications, especially in the realms of Business, Career, Self-Development, Writing, and Work.

THE ABILITY HOARD – AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON PERSONAL AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

When it comes to my own characters (be they fictional or gaming) and even the players and characters I DM I think of Skills, Capabilities, Abilities, Attributes, (innate personal and individual features) and so forth as much more important character elements and possessions than magic items, spells, money, and other types of what is normally thought of as “standard treasures.”

To me the single greatest types of treasures a character (or a real person) can possess are what they can actually do for themselves (and for others) in the world, devoid of all outside help, material/materiel, and extraneous accoutrements. So I’m going to call this idea and post the Ability-Hoard, or the Treasure of Personal Capacity. I think that this is where the true emphasis of “characterization” should be evident, and most brightly shine.

Let me, at this point, briefly define the Ability Hoard…

The Ability Hoard is that accumulated set of skills, talents, abilities, capabilities, extraordinary qualities (be they physical, mental, psychological, or spiritual), educational and individual merits, virtues, and sensory capacities that a character or person possesses which allows them to resolve difficult problems or to gain some beneficial advantage over others or over a particular set of circumstances.

THE MIDDLE WAY

I planned it all for everything
But nothing was what came,
Then started out at once from here
To find it all the same

Once I took up all my time
Planning my whole life,
That never got me anywhere
Or very much but strife

I’d sometimes head out sans a plan
That never went so well,
I’d some of this, and some of that,
But rarely did excel

I recall these habits old and lost
To wonder where they led?
Neither ever led to(o) much
Or kept me warm and fed

Now I see them as extremes
And both as incomplete
Neither one quite workable, and
Filled with dead conceits

Today I plan for what I should
Not for what I can’t,
Flexible at either end
There is no “must” or “shan’t”

Your life is yours so plan it well
That is some Wise advice;
But life is unpredictable –
Opportunity’s Device

So make your plans and work them well
Til better comes your way,
Then be ready thus to pounce
Without a planned delay.

THE MASTER OF HIS BETTER CRAFT (A LOOKING GLASS WILL DO)

I used to practice all the time before I learned to do it
Then I practiced even more to help myself accrue it
I wrote and wrestled, scribed and scored
A thousand lines a day,
I exercised with great accord
If even I do say,
By practice trained I forged my mind
Repetition’s Child,
Drill and Duty, Craftsman’s Kiln
A Master will beguile;
The modern man thinks everything
Is only thin technique, but
Training born and bred in blood
Into the Real Man seeps
If you would be the Great Maestro
Then you must toil long
The road is hard, the trail discards
Those who don’t belong;
And who does not, you might ask
Not deserve to be
The Master of his Better Craft,
The Lord of High Degree?
You need not track with Spying Glass
A Looking Glass will do,
That man who will not sharpen skills
Will soon be bid “adieu.”

(the same, of course, applies to the mastery of all things…)

 

What New Research on the Brain Says Every Writer Should Do

German brain researchers studied the brain activity of people who were actively writing, and they discovered one thing that every person should do to become a better writer. Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist, explains how the study worked and reveals the secret.

By

Mignon Fogarty,

Grammar Girl

August 22, 2014

Page 1 of 2

[Note: If you’re listening along with the audio in the player on this page, you can follow along with the text of the first segment by opening the Money, Monies, and Moneys page in a new window.]

Sponsor: Thanks to Audible for supporting our channel.  Get a free audiobook of your choice at AudiblePodcast.com/GG.

 

Ellen Hendriksen is the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, and she recently sent me an article about researchers in Germany who studied people’s brains while they were actively writing. They looked at both professional writers and novices, and they found differences. The professional writers showed brain activity similar to what researchers see in people who are good at music and sports.

Mignon: Before we get into the findings, they used something called an fMRI scanner. What does that actually measure?

Ellen: This is a great question—there are so many fMRI studies in the news these days, but much like “gluten” or “Obamacare,” most of us don’t know what fMRI really is, even though the term gets thrown around a lot.  So this is a perfect opportunity for a quick primer!

fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging.  When an area of the brain is used to think thoughts or perform a task, it requires more oxygen, so blood flow to that area increases to meet the demand.

The fMRI scanner uses a strong magnetic field combined with radio waves to create images of this contrast in blood flow—the oxygen-enhanced blood in the active part of the brain reacts differently to the magnetic field and therefore stands out against the less oxygenated blood in the quieter parts of the brain.

The images allow neuroscientists to pinpoint what parts of the brain are in use during a given task, plus there’s no exposure to radiation like in an X-ray or CT scan.

Mignon: What did you think was most interesting about this study? Is it ground-breaking or does it build on things researchers already knew?  

Ellen: I’d say both.  It is groundbreaking because this is the first time neuroscientists have looked at the brains of experienced writers writing fiction in real time.  Two previous studies have had participants make up stories in their heads while in the scanner, but this is the first time we’ve been able to catch the brain in the act of writing.

What’s the useful takeaway message for writers? Practice.

Logistically, this was hard to pull off.  You can’t have a computer in the same room as the scanner because of the magnetic field, so the researchers asked writers to write longhand.  But, you have to lie down in the scanner, so they couldn’t have the writers sit normally to write.  Finally, you have to be absolutely still in the scanner—just like with a regular camera.  If your subject moves, you end up with a blurry picture.  So the researchers had the triple whammy of figuring out how to get people to lie down with their heads perfectly still, but still write longhand.  So through a set of double mirrors and a custom-built writing desk, they jury-rigged a system.  You’ll find a picture on the QDT website.

This study was also important because the next frontier of creativity research is identifying neural mechanisms—in other words, this is the first study to nail down how the semi-mystical qualities of creativity and expertise in professional writers manifest as neurons and blood flow.  It’s a little bit like pulling back the curtain on the wizard to reveal his gears and levers.

It’s also important to say that creativity and expertise are very difficult to study.  There’s so much that goes into it: originality, intelligence, talent, practice effects, motivation, culture.  So while this study is a nice shovelful towards the excavation of creativity, there’s a lot more to uncover before we can get a definite picture of what we’re even unearthing.

– See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/what-new-research-on-the-brain-says-every-writer-should-do#sthash.knnnXVbB.dpuf

SO WHAT? ACTION IS ACTION

It’s only a starting point anyway. With focus and practice you’re liable to become much, much better over time. You don’t improve at anything sans practice.

Nobody reading your blog? 10 reasons to persist!

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Tools to Help You Write a Novel in 30 Days

November is National Novel Writing Month; here’s the best software to help you write 50,000 words in 30 days.
The Best Writing Tools for NaNoWriMo

Contents

November is known for turkey, Black Friday sales, not shaving, and—since the year 2000—the month when writers try to (finally) craft the Great American Novel. We’re talking about the fifteenth annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

What began as a little event in San Francisco in July 1999 (it moved to November the next year) has ballooned into something far more than national—it’s a worldwide phenomenon, backed by a non-profit company created by the founder, Chris Baty, that doubles as a major cheerleader for writers.

It’s free to participate, but your tax-deductable donations are encouraged to keep it afloat. That’s because you don’t really need the NaNoWriMo site to get a book written. But think about the “rule” you’re expected to follow to “win” at NaNoWriMo: You have to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. That’s 1,667 words a day. Stephen King might snap that much off before lunchtime, but the rest of us need encouragement.

Take the first step by announcing your novel at NaNoWriMo.org, and on November 1, start recording your daily word count. You’ll earn badges along the way and get advice via newsletters (some by famous authors) and the forums. You can build a community of fellow WriMos online and locally through events.

In the end, you’ll have a novel. It will probably be crappy. No, it will definitely be crap-tastic. But that’s okay! The only rule of NaNoWriMo is to finish—because that’s the hardest part. Some famous modern novels, such as Wool, The Night Circus, and Water for Elephants all started life as NaNoWriMo novels. We’re not saying you’re that good… but if you work on it after November, maybe you can get it out there. (That’s a whole other story.)

To truly succeed at NaNoWriMo you need things we can’t help you with—like an idea, and a plot, and characters, not to mention the gumption to spend hours each day clacking at the keyboard. But we can point out bsome of the absolute best software and apps you can get to make it all a little easier to write, plan, and count all those precious words. After you win by writing that 50,000-word tome—that’s the same size at The Great Gatsby!—you’ll have all the tools you need on hand to keep writing. Always keep writing…

SHOW AND TELL

For my NaNoWriMo friends.

I liked the way in which, and how, she presented most of this advice.

How to Show and When to Tell

I hope you’re busy writing your amazing works of NaNoWriMo fiction!
I thought, as we dive in, it might help to understand what editors mean by “Show, Don’t Tell.”  Listen, I know it can be confusing.  Especially since there is not only mis-information and bad teaching out there, but also because there IS a time Tell!
Showing, not Telling is not about describing everything that happens. And Telling has nothing to do with narrative and backstory.  Narrative and backstory (and even action) get a bad rap because often, during narrative, backstory and action, authors drop into “telling” without realizing it.  Describing ACTION by saying “John shot Bill.” is not telling.  It’s action.  But adding:  “John felt sorry when he shot Bill,” would be telling.
See, I know. Confusing.
Here’s the bottom line:  Showing is about helping the reader experience the emotions of the character. Showing brings us into the mind and heart of the character to understand their emotional journey.
Here’s how:  If you say, ‘She felt grief,’ or even, and this is more common, ‘Grief overtook her’ you are not just telling us what emotion she’s feeling, but you’re pinpointing one emotion your reader must feel with the character. Instead, show us how despair makes her feel through how she acts, what she thinks, what she says and how she sees her world. Let us into your character’s head.
 
Telling is when you tell someone how to feel. It relates to the emotion to the story, not the narrative, backstory and action.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say your character has just lost her husband. She’s come home from the funeral to the quiet house and gone upstairs to her room.  Here are some options:
 
You could say: She stood in front of the closet and grieved. However, we feel like an onlooker, a voyeur into her world. We are told how she feels, but don’t experience her grief.
Further from that, but also a telling, is: She stood in front of the closet and felt grief course through her. We’re closer to understanding how she feels, but we’ve still been told exactly the emotion she’s experiencing.
Better is: She stood in front of the closet and wept. Here, we’re closer to experiencing what the character is feeling. We might understand what it feels like to stand there and simply weep.
But what if we took it further. What if we let the reader into the character’s skin to feel the grief?
She stood at the edge of the closet and stared at his polished shoes, at his pressed wool suits, at his crisp silky red ties. A tidy man. Not the kind to wrap his car around a tree. But there, in the back…she pushed aside the shirts and pulled out his letter jacket, the one he’d wrapped around her the night they’d met. She inhaled. Thirty years, and still his scent lingered. Please, let it linger. Please let her rewind, go back to the fight, erase her words. Erase his anger. Without a word, she stepped inside the closet, closed the door behind her, pulled the jacket over her, and wept.
Never once do I say that she is grieving. But I weave it in through her perspective, the five senses and rich details and finally her actions.
Here’s the part that people confuse. Often I see people over-showing in their effort to not tell.  What happens, then, is they write, “She bent at the knees, lowering herself into the chair,” instead of simply saying, “She sat.”  Don’t laugh – I’ll be you could find this in your early drafts! (I know I can!)  Authors spend precious words showing how a person rises from a chair, or how they get dressed. Don’t do this!  Tell actions that are common to all of us.  She tied her shoe, she made coffee, she answered the phone.  We all get what this looks like.
However, show actions that you want to make impact. If you want answering the phone to have impact, then have her reach for the phone, check the caller id, maybe hover her thumb over the receive button. Then push it before her courage fails.
Here are the easy rules for Show Don’t Tell:
Tell us everyday actions, SHOW us the important ones that reveal emotions.
            Show us the emotion, don’t tell us about it.
Are you bogging down your story by showing actions that have no emotional connection to the story?  Here’s a litmus test. Ask: How does the emotion impact your character?  Are you showing this emotion through words, action, though and perspective?
Better yet, take the MBT Challenge: Write the scene without naming the emotion! It’ll make you stretch and help you become a better writer.
Have a great NaNoWriMo week!  Go – write something brilliant!
Susie May
MBT Head Coach

WRITER’S BLOCK AND WRITER’S LICENSE

I’ve never suffered the creative malady, Writer’s Block – as it is typically defined anyway, as an inability to generate new material. I’ve always had the opposite problem, Writer’s License.

By that I mean too many ideas, too many projects, and not enough focus on one thing at a time. And when it comes to a single project constantly adding onto it and ceaselessly building it without any real restraint until it grows overly-complicated and unwieldy. That is to say that often I have an overindulgence of ideas, and it is my lack of desire to restrict and redact that is the problem for me, not my ability to generate and grow.

My ability to constantly generate more is almost unlimited. But over time I have learned to better control that, though the problem still remains and sometimes I will subconsciously find my desk and myself surrounded by hundreds of sticky notes for idea and scene and plot inclusion into a book and then I’ll have to say to myself, “Realistically kid, this will be impossible.

So for those with Writer’s Block as it is atypically defined, or as I define it, as Writer’s License (for it should have a separate term and definition altogether), then here is an interesting and generally useful article to address that/your problem.

Of course it depends on exactly what you’re writing as to how useful any particular writing advice may actually be.

 

Half the Words, Twice the Hits: 7 Tips for Removing Writer’s Block

When you write for fun, the knowledge that you’ll be the only one to read your words can make it easy to fill three journal pages in ten minutes. But when you’re working with a deadline, two problems may slow down your writing process:

  • Writer’s block. A form of anxiety that makes it temporarily impossible to produce new work because nothing seems good enough to be published.
  • Inability to self-edit. Deleting your own words means detaching your emotions from the time and energy you just spent creating them.

Writers have been publicly battling this malady since Coleridge wrote about his own struggles in 1804. Writer’s block is widely accepted as an occupational hazard. But as a professional content marketer, you simply don’t have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for your muse to appear. In order to meet deadlines and company expectations, you have to write quickly, smoothly, and succinctly.

That last point is especially important. It was Chekov (or Faulkner, or Ginsberg) who once said, “Kill your darlings.” Intense, but good advice. Sometimes, your most cherished sentence can be what’s keeping you from saying what you really need to.

Last year, Flavorwire collected and published tips on overcoming writer’s block from 13 famous writers. Here are seven of ours:

1. Start with Research

Read the creative or content brief and your assignment sheet, then do third-party research to become well-versed on your subject. Take your time, and trust that your brain absorbs information whether you’re conscious of it or not.

2. Just Write

Subscribe to the saying, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” Record your thoughts on what you’ve researched. What do you need to tell your audience about your product or services? What are your readers’ pain points? How will you solve their problems?

3. Look for Patterns and Think Chronologically

Look for trends in your draft. Have any themes emerged on their own? Is there a logical outline or structure to the piece? Move sentences or paragraphs around and refine your vocabulary, phrasing, and grammar. If readers were to follow your advice, what action should they take first?

4. Spunk It Up!

Write blog posts that engage your audience and keep them coming back for more. If you’ve got a great sense of humor, bring it to your writing (if the topic allows). Cite relevant research and articles, include interesting links to outside sources, and capture readers’ attention with eye-catching photographs.

5. Give It Shape

Your job as a marketing content producer is to take a big idea and make it snackable. Clearly define paragraphs, use numbered or bulleted lists, and remember that white space is a blog writer’s best friend. If that means you end up turning one post into two, all the better!

6. Be Ruthless

Ask yourself, “If I had to cut the word count in half, what would stay and what would go?” This reductive process will force you to write concise, relevant sentences. Ask yourself if every paragraph offers new or useful information. If you’ve merely restated your point, identify and eliminate it. It’s difficult to do, especially if what you’re ditching is witty, but it’s worth it in a culture that thinks in tweets.

7. Understand That Practice Makes . . .

. . . you better. You won’t get it right on the first try, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you will. No writer is perfect. Work with a good editor and consider every piece of criticism a gift. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to carefully review your edited copy and use what you learn the next time you sit down to write.

Want more content-creation tips to help destroy writer’s block for good? Register for the Content Standard newsletter.

THE NEAT, THE LOST, AND THE MESSY

With me it depends greatly upon what I am working on. If it is an invention or I am composing music or writing a song I prefer everything conducted with mathematical precision and to be highly organized and neat. Same if I am designing something, like a game or a set of design schematics. That’s pretty much how I work regarding business projects as well. Computer and hard files both carefully stored and organized. Desk neat.

If it is poetry,or I am writing a book or a novel, or it is artwork I’m very messy. Not disorganized, but messy. (Which are entirely different things.) I keep very careful and well organized computer files but I’ll have hundreds of notes and papers and notebook and research entries scattered about everywhere. I don’t know why that is, just the way I work. My office itself, by the way, is almost always neat and clean. My desk, drafting table, and in-office library shelves can be another matter altogether depending on what I am pursuing.

I’ve tried to be looser regarding scientific and technological and inventive work but that never works well. And I’ve tried to be better organized regarding poetry and art and writing and that doesn’t work well either. I think I either have different sub-conscious expectations in one field or another or that my mind just shifts into different work modes depending on what I’m doing.

The Psychology Behind Messy Rooms: Why The Most Creative People Flourish In Clutter

The Psychology Behind Messy Rooms: Why The Most Creative People Flourish In Clutter
Money

All our lives, we’ve been told to “be organized.” Organization has always been pegged as a direct key to success.

Whether at home, school or in your bunk at camp, organization is something that has been instilled in everyone pretty much from birth. On the other hand, being messy has been equally condemned and made to be a quick path to failure. And, honestly, no rebuttal could say otherwise.

I mean, what good can come from being disorganized, right? Perhaps more than you might think. More recent studies, conducted by the University of Minnesota last year, provide us with a new side of the debate. The pro-messy one.

There has always been this sort of “urban legend” that has floated around modern society deeming people with messy desks as having a high affinity for creative reasoning.

Frankly, I initially thought that people with “messy desks” had to be creative, out of necessity, to survive outside the boundaries of organization.

Last week’s take home test, still undone, in one corner. A page from last month’s Playboy ripped out and crumpled next to the bottle of cocoa butter in the other. Empty Arizona cans distributed across the surface, like a battlefield.

Your desk is a mess. Then again, it’s your mess, and thus, it feels very in-control. When you habitually fail to put things in their designated place, you’re bound to get creative figuring out ways to make everything, I don’t know, fit. And fit comfortably.

While it might look completely random to strangers, a lot of times, a person’s mess is very methodical – with respect to himself.

Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota, who set out to debunk this urban legend, didn’t confine her study to solely the desk. No, Vohs, clearly a creative mind, chose to think outside the desk. She just sounds messy. The creative kind of messy.

Using a paradigm consisting of one messy room and one tidy room, and a series of trials, Vohs concluded that messy rooms provoke more creative thinking – and provided scientific evidence!

The next question is, what exactly constitutes “creative thinking,” and how will your pig sty of a room help?

Creative thinking, in its purest form, is thinking outside the lines of “conventional” reasoning. When considering this, it should be no huge shock that messy rooms containing possessions misplaced from their “conventional” locations would promote creativity.

I suppose if you prefer to “lay,” and I use that term very loosely, your clean clothes on the floor of your bedroom, when the empty dresser is only a few feet away – you’re certainly thinking outside the lines of conventional reasoning. And that same concept could be applied to more abstract conception.

Consider this from Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

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