When creativity fails #amwriting

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Every writer has moments when creativity fails them. We sit before our computer and the words refuse to come, or when they do, they seem awkward. At times like this, we feel alone and isolated. After all, an idea is jammed in our head and words should fall from our fingers like water from the tap.

I have suffered this, the same as every author does. However, it never gets too firm a grip on me because I have several exercises that help me write my way through the block. Something we sometimes forget is that the act of writing every day builds mental muscle tone and keeps you fit and in thehabit ofwriting.

Every author suffers a dry spell now and then. Even so, this job requires us to practice, just like music or dancing. Doing well at anything artistic or sports related requires discipline. Just like…

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Write as if no one will read it

I write these blog entries with the assumption that nobody will read them.

I hear it in my mind in Kathy Mattea’s voice when she sang, “You got to sing like you don’t need the money… Love like you’ll never get hurt… You’ve got to dance, dance, dance, like nobody’s watching… It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”

You got to write, write, write, like nobody’s reading…

And then when you learn that somebody read it, if you did it well, you might find that the feeling is that of comfort.

Several years ago, when I was new to blogging, a niece, who was in her early teens at the time, said, “I like it when you write from the heart. You should write more of that.”

I think that’s good advice.

I’ve always felt best about writing from the heart, that is, writing without worrying how it will be taken. I do sometimes have to carefully choose my words so they don’t get misundertsood by certain people who have proven a tendency to twist my meaning, but more often than not, I just let it flow.

I know there is a risk that someone will read my words.You are reading them right now. And there is a list of people who purposely follow my blog, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they will read each entry.

But people stumble across my writing in other ways, too.

When I was 18, I was at the family home of the guy who ended up becoming my first husband. A friend of his grabbed my purse and opened it, saying, “Whatcha got in here?”

He took out my journal and I gave a mild protest, like, “Oh, no… don’t read that.”

But I didn’t really want him to not read it. He read it out loud, at first as though he was mocking me, but he kept reading long after a few sentences. And I was glad. I just sat there and smiled smugly, like, “Ha. Go ahead and read. I have nothing to hide, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the ride.”

Somebody once told me, “Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want to be seen by the whole world if it fell into the wrong hands.”

I’ve written things I didn’t want anyone else to see, and they did fall into the wrong hands, but that was before I learned that advice.

Sometimes people surprise me and say something to the effect of having read what I wrote in my blog entries or elsewhere on the internet. It’s a comfortable feeling of having unknowingly invited someone into my pointless little world, and finding that something I said stuck in their mind.

How about you? Can you relate to any of this? I’d love to hear how you feel about the production of your own writing. Leave a comment below, if you can find the elusive comment box, or otherwise connect with me.

(Kathy Mattea’s video: “Come From The Heart”)

Reblog: Balance showing and telling

Show, don’t tell

I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”

Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.

This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.

It’s in the prose

Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.

Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.

Dramatization versus exposition

The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.

Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.

  1. “Telling” verbs

These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.

My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.

2. Dramatize, don’t summarize

You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.

3. Balance

Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.

4. Show the one right detail

Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.

The camera trick

The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.

You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.

Showing better by stirring emotions

Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:

  1. Metaphor and simile

Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.

Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.

2.  Verbs to trigger the senses

Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.

3.  Interweaving dialogue

Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird  scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.

How to show in four easy steps

The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:

  1. Use dialogue
  2. Use sensory language
  3. Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
  4. Be specific, not vague

The great lie of writing workshops?

Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.

Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.

Mostly show but sometimes tell

Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.

Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.

Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.

Fantasy Breeds Creativity

“Without playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.”

 

~some Swiss psychiatrist

 

(From my Google Plus account, October 18, 2011. I only went there because I got emails telling me Google Plus is shutting down and I needed to archive it if I ever wanted to see any of it again. I haven’t gone to it in years. It was never catchy for me, anyway.)

 

Memoir: real names?

I am working on turning several years worth of journals, which I wrote while living in remote parts of Alaska during the 1990s, into a book. Or maybe a series of books. A lot of detailed stories keep begging to be told, aside from the notes of daily life that differ from the average day in civilization.

One fact that I can’t hide in my writing is that I was not in a good relationship. I don’t want that to be the focus of the book, but it is a theme that cannot be denied as the stories unfold.

I am not out to make anyone look bad, though some people manage to do that themselves whether I talk about it or not, and they should have thought about their behaviour before acting that way around me, knowing that I like to write.

I think of these words from an author of whom I am not a fan but it’s a good quote:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” (Anne Lamotte in “Bird By Bird”)

Still, there are legalities.

There is also morality. Regardless of whether or not it is legal to mention people by their real name and use the real locations where they still live as part of the stories I experienced, I ask myself if I want to invite the possibility of curious people trying to find their home to see the places about which they read in my books.

Other things I could say, but they are best kept for talking to a lawyer before publishing.

Meanwhile, I found this article to be helpful: Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?

Hopefully, I’ve not done enough stupid stuff to end up in someone else’s book. Then again, isn’t all publicity good publicity?

Memoir Writing Tenses

It’s a little bit creepy how it turns out that things about which I had only been thinking but hadn’t yet uttered aloud or even typed to anyone happen to turn up as a topic in a notification on my Facebook. The following link is one of them:

Writers Digest article on memoir structure

In case the article disappears from view someday, I will copy it in its entirety here.

5 Things to Consider When Structuring Your Memoir
September 12, 2018
by Cheryl Suchors

For some writers, structure appears like a bridge in the mist; for others, like myself, there’s only the mist. Several ingredients can be used to create a structure, like that bridge, that works for your book. You may know the answers to the considerations below right away, or you may need to experiment and discover them through the writing itself. Either way, memoir structure is as crucial as structure in fiction and no good memoir will be able to stand tall without it.

Memoir Structure: 5 Things to Consider When You’re Writing a Memoir

1. Order of Events

In some memoirs, Without a Map by Meredith Hall for example, the chapters jump forward and backward in time. This adds an element of unpredictability that both challenges and engages the reader.

Most memoirs, however, tend to flow chronologically. That is, they run through events in the sequence in which they happened. But even a chronological memoir isn’t purely chronological since the narrator is now an adult filtering past experiences through the lens of a wiser, more mature person. This is part of what adds richness to the tale.

If you can avoid a mostly chronological structure, good for you. You’ll benefit from the inherent complexity. But if, like most memoirists, you are using a chronological structure, there are still several techniques to help you avoid the pitfall of “first this happened, then that happened,” an approach that drains the life and tension from a book.

I stuck to a chiefly chronological structure in 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, while playing with various elements of structure to create movement and interest: storyboarding, sectioning, tense, and time.

2. Storyboarding

Basically, a book poses a central question or issue in the beginning and answers or resolves it, for good or ill, by the end. Storyboarding the rising and falling action that creates drama is a technique borrowed from film.

I learned how to use a storyboard to structure my memoir from Mary Carroll Moore, author of Your Book Starts Here. (She also does a youtube explanation, embedded below, and offers a wonderful blog on writing at marycarrollmoore.com.)

Essentially, there are five key points: the triggering event that gets the action rolling down toward the second point, a conflict or complication that gets worked through to create a rising action; the third turn which sends the action spiraling downward to the fourth point, the lowest point of the book, from which the action ascends to the fifth point or conclusion. These five points shape, in effect, a capital W.

Figuring out these five points provides the skeleton of your memoir. From there, one decides what must happen between each pair of points or leg of the W.

I wrote my five key points onto five brightly colored sticky notes and stuck them in their appropriate spot, creating a large W on a big piece of white cardboard. Each scene or action I thought belonged in 48 PEAKS went onto a sticky note. I placed the stickies somewhere between a pair of points. I moved certain bits around to even things out or build tension. Sometimes I had to create scenes to improve the flow, or delete those that weren’t integral to the rest of the book. In either case, it was easier to come to these conclusions because I could literally see the cogs that made the wheel of my memoir turn.

Once you’ve settled on the right order for your storyboard, see if it makes sense for your manuscript to be divided into parts. Sectioning can be a way of supporting your reader through the material in a way that we’re all so used to it doesn’t intrude as it guides.

My manuscript, for example, fell into two parts as neatly as an apple cleaved in half. (Not that I planned it that way.) A main character in the first half, for reasons I won’t go into here, disappeared in the second half. And that disappearance created a certain thrust for the second part.

From a story point of view, the sectioning made sense. It also, frankly, made the material easier for me to work with, since I was manipulating one half of the book at a time. I did have to go back later on to ensure themes wove the two halves together, but sectioning made earlier drafts less arduous.

4. TENSE

In what tense will you write your memoir? Present tense has the benefit of intimacy and immediacy; simple past is familiar, virtually transparent to readers, and can be easier to sustain for a book-length project.

My early drafts were written completely in the present tense because it helped me, the writer, feel again what I transcribed. But I experimented with the simple past as well and liked both ways. I couldn’t decide which to do, until a developmental editor suggested putting the first half in the past tense and the second half in the present. This idea appealed to me because, as a reader, I sometimes found books sagged in their middles. Switching at that point to the present tense introduced a novelty and a speed that I hoped would keep readers turning the pages.

Changing tenses worked because I began the book with a prologue that took place four years after the start of the book in chapter one. I wrote the prologue in present tense to establish that year as the narrative present. In this way, the whole first half was past tense because it had happened earlier. The second half of the book returned to the narrative present and took off from there.

5. Time

Flashbacks are another way to play with time and break up the chronological line. They not only add depth to characters but also create tension as the reader must wait for the story to move onward. Flashbacks were a handy device, I found, when I didn’t want to resolve a situation too quickly but wanted the drama to build for awhile.

You can also use long sections of narration in the same manner as flashbacks, breaking up the forward motion of the book with, in effect, pauses to consider a point, a whole chunk of history, or a theme. I advise using this technique sparingly; too many pauses or digressions can merely aggravate readers.

If it makes sense for your story, one can also create flash forwards, though these are typically brief and have to be handled with care so as not to jolt the reader.

Conclusion

Finding the structure that fits and supports your memoir takes effort. If you’re going with a primarily chronological order, as most of us do, a slightly playful attitude allows you to experiment, to stretch and pull the inherent drama from your story like taffy.

Above all, be patient. Persevere. If you keep at it, the structure that uniquely suits your memoir will come to you through the mist.

Writing Without Cussing

If someone’s going to write a book, a play, or a movie – or even an internet post – they should produce it with proper dialogue and good words.

Creative words.

Don’t stick to the lameness of reality with its knee-jerk cussing.

Go out on a limb of higher verbiage.

There is time, when writing as opposed to speaking, to cultivate creative communication.

Encouragement for Writing

The following is a comment written to me by my friend Chad in response to one of my blog posts (this one: Giving Up On Writing) . I found it so encouraging that I decided to put it in a document, highlighting a few points in Amazinga font, with the rest in Adobe Garamond Pro font, and to print it out and put it on my desk, so I can refer to it until it becomes ingrained. I also wanted to share it with others who might happen to find my blog. May it bless you as it has me.

“I felt like encouraging you to write at your leisure, and don’t let anybody dictate rules about that – not even you.

I’d suggest sitting down to write as often as you get the time, but notice that all I said was sit down to write I didn’t say actually write necessarily, nor create an obligation to write and then feel lousy if nothing happens.

I’ve received that same advice (with more detail) and it’s the closest thing I’ve done to being something enjoyable and productive. Notice again, that I didn’t say it was enjoyable and productive – just the closest thing to it that I’ve tried.

It’s enjoyable more often than not, though.

It’s also enjoyable more often than it’s productive, and that’s an important piece to ponder, should you desire to do so.

One hint I can give you is that when I sit down at my desk, I’m not creating a law to follow; about accomplishment of any kind. I’ve learned that that never is a positive experience and rarely if ever produces anything, positive or not.

But what I do, instead, is first, enjoy a tiny little pocket of orderor quiet, as it’s commonly known. It usually takes a while for my brain to reach a state that I can call quiet. But when it does I just give myself license to enjoy it.

With God.

Praying and writing are not things I separate very often.

Then I just decide that I’ll write or I won’t.

I ask God, but I don’t strain.

I just enjoy a moment with Him, and I let it go where it goes, and if I happen upon some part of that time that maybe could be written down, then I start.

Without expectations.

That’s the important part.

Peace is vital to the process, therefore laws and expectations are antithetical to it.

Since you do have a specific project in mind, maybe you can still just write whatever comes to you, and stay loose, and maybe you wander into your project, or maybe what you write spontaneously turns out to form an unexpected element of the main project? Or maybe it jars a memory loose that’s relevant to it, or maybe it inspires something unexpected… who knows? Not us, so why form expectations? It ruins the enjoyment, and it stifles creativity. It may never have anything to do with the book you’ve planned, but it may stand on its own as something you and others value for decades to come, and yet more, it may form the basis of a main project that you hadn’t previously even considered. But there’s only one way to find out what it’s going to be….

Prayer for me is a great way to enter the writing process, and writing is a great way to enjoy God. So I combine them, and I trust Him to lead the proceedings. And when I approach it that way, it’s much more peaceful and much more enjoyable, and more often fruitful – and in more than just one way. And if something is not enjoyable, and there’s no gun to your head, it’s not worth doing in large part because the fruit (product) won’t be as good as it will be if it were an immersive, transporting experience for you, to create it.

Well, that’s my opinion, anyway.

Maybe you’re already doing this but lack the time to engage in such pronounced dissociation, or maybe you’re a different enough personality type that it’s not your thing (although I highly doubt that, from knowing you to whatever extent I do!).

Maybe, however, there’s some use you can make of something or other I’ve said – that’s what I hope, anyway – but either way, I pray you find time, inspiration, and most of all, enjoyment, in the desire and effort to produce, and in the process itself.

Can’t go wrong if ya pray for someone, no matter the quality of your advice! ☺

PS I apologize for the disjointedness and rambling, but I didn’t prepare and I didn’t edit. I rarely do in contexts like this – though folks may occasionally wish I had done! ?”

Biggest takeaway for me is this:
“Peace is vital to the process“.

Amen, so much amen, and aaaaaaaaamen! Yo!

Writing With A Pen

For me, there is something therapeutic about picking up a ball-point pen and watching the letters form on a fresh page, especially those first words in a new notebook. The word “sacred” comes to mind.

Whether I write via ink or through the wonders of electronic transmission, getting the words out is the main thing. Still, something about pen and paper beckons to me. Perhaps it is the relative simplicity, where no electricity or electronics are involved, giving more of a sense of creating something from my mind and connecting to the result.

bursting-heart-pen

I read an article today on the subject of writing by hand. I find it to be inspiring. Here it is.

The Simple Joy of Writing by Hand