Perhaps We’re Looking at the “Work” of Writing All Wrong

One of my major writing philosophies is that there will always be work to be done.

PileOfWork-265x300Quite a few years ago, I started to look at the work of writing as a necessity. As a fact. I realized I had to accept that there will always be a ton of work: there will be revision, false starts, freewriting, and hundreds of pages that will never end up in the book. I’ve become very zen about the amount of work a novel demands. It’s an integral part of my process. I accept it. And I’ve never been scared of the amount of work to be done since.

But lately, I’ve come across a lot of writers who say the exact opposite to me. They say things like: “I don’t want to put in that much work and have to throw it out.” Or “I’m afraid to do this revision. What if it’s the wrong direction?” or “I don’t have that kind of time.” I’ve talked to them about how freeing it is to explore a story through freewriting and brainstorming. Or the benefit of writing scenes from other character’s perspectives. Or the value of barking up the wrong tree and the empowerment that comes from learning something doesn’t work! But I’m always met with frowns and furrowed brows. Everyone wants to get to the finish line faster. They don’t want to put in the work.

Or rather, they don’t want to put in work they don’t see as useful.

This aversion to writing has always puzzled me. Writing is supposed to be a joy. It’s supposed to be fun. When did that joy go away and get replaced with perfection and efficiency? When did writing really become work?

I had an ah-ha moment recently. I was reading Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, and in it he makes a case for the importance of play in inspiration and the creation of creative works. Play! Not work. Only in today’s society, we frown on the concept of play. We see it as childish and unimportant, when, in fact, it may be the most important thing a creative person can cultivate. Here’s the passage that struck me:

Wonderbook“Inherent in the idea of play being immature and frivolous is the idea that, just like business processes, all creative process should be efficient, timely, linear, organized and easily summarized. If it’s not clearly a means to an end, it must be a waste of time. In the worst creative writing books, this method is expressed in seven-point plot outlines and other easy shortcuts rather than exercises to help encourage the organic development of your own approach. This bind in codification sometimes reflects fear of the unpredictability of the imagination and the need to have a set of rules in place through which to understand the universe.” – Jeff Vandermeer (Wonderbook)

Is it possible we’ve foolishly replaced the word “play” with “work”? In our need to be professional writers, productive students, and serious business-savvy authors, have we forgotten the most fundamental part of creativity? Have we forgotten to play?

I began to wonder if this was why I’m not afraid of the work it takes to write a novel. For me, writing isn’t work. It’s fun. It’s a creative exploration into my characters, their world, the possible points of view the story could be written in, or the possible scenes that could exist. It’s about exploring how wide and deep and wonderful a story can be, rather than seeing it as a straight shot from beginning to end.

PlayWhat if we’re thinking about the work of writing all wrong? What if we need to switch the words “work” and “play”?

“It’s not time to work on this revision. It’s time to play with this revision.”

“I’m going to open my manuscript and not work, but play.”

Does changing one word change our attitude toward revision, exploration, and the time involved? If we think about rewriting a scene as a chance to play, does it free us from the pressures of efficiency and organization? Does it make room for the story to break open and explode with inspiration and creativity?

What if working on a novel is efficient, but not effective? What if taking the long route – taking the time to play – will result in a more joyful writing journey? What if it will result in a deeper and more complex creative pursuit? What if it will open us – and our novels – up to the unexpected and the profound? Isn’t that worth the “frivolity” of play? Isn’t that worth abandoning short cuts and organization?

What if playing is what make us stronger and more creative? What if playing is what actually makes us effective writers?

Only one way to find out. I’ll see you on the playground.

NaNoWriMo Prep

TypewriterAre you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year? It starts this Saturday (November 1st) and is a mad dash to write 50,000 words of a novel in one short month! I participated for the first time last year and loved it. It’s true, I was a big snob about NaNoWriMo before I tried it, but now I’m a complete convert.

If you’re taking the plunge and trying NaNoWriMo this year, I have a few quick suggestions that I learned from my experience last year. Hopefully these will help you stay on track and reach your 50,000 word goal.

1) Make an Outline

Make a list of scenes you want to write for your novel. This doesn’t need to be fully formed outline. All you need is a list of events or moments that you think might be a part of the book. The fun thing about NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing so fast that everything you try counts toward your 50,000 word! Even if you cut it later, you can try it now and it’s productive. You can pick a scene to write each day and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t go anywhere, try another scene on your list. You’d be surprised to see how many scenes will snowball into whole sequences, chapters, and eventually full novels! An outline gives you a place to start each day, and a new scene to jump to if the one your working on isn’t going anywhere.

2) Create Scene Cards

After you make your outline, create scene cards for each of your scenes. These cards outline the major action and emotional change of the scene. This will help you to make sure you have a plan and direction when you write. This way you won’t sit down and stare at a blank page. When I re-read my novel after NaNoWriMo, one of the big things I learned was that scenes I had a plan for were worth keeping. Scenes I didn’t use a scene card for often got cut. Read more about scene cards and see examples here: Scene Cards Blog Post.

3) Don’t Edit

I know it seems counter intuitive to not edit. Part of writing is choosing the right phrase and sentence to communicate your ideas. But when the end goal is word count, editing is your worst enemy. NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas on the page and moving forward. It isn’t about writing a masterpiece in the first pass. That’s what revision is for. Who cares if you’ve added adverbs everywhere. Who cares if you spend half a page describing a character’s hair style. This draft is about creating the raw material that you can shape and mold later. It’s easier to revise a novel once you have that raw material to work with, rather than trying to come up with a brilliant and perfectly crafted page out of nothing. Yes, your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be spun gold. That’s not the point. The point is to get material on the page that you can revise with.

nanowrimo-poster

4) Write the Fun Scenes First

We often think we have to write in linear order. We also think we have to finish scenes. I give you permission leave scenes half-finished and to write out of order! Write the scenes you’re most excited to write first. Those scenes are going to have the most energy and excitement behind them. They’re going to create inertia that gets you excited to get up and write again tomorrow. If a scene isn’t going well, don’t finish it. Leave yourself a big note that says: finish this scene later and move on. Don’t worry about it right now. There are going to big plot holes, sure, but you can fix them in revision. Focus on what is fun and keeps you excited to keep writing this project. That’s the trick to writing faster than you should. Have fun and forget all the rules you’ve made for yourself in the past. Create, enjoy, and fall in love with your story.

5) Write in the Morning

Not everyone is a morning writer. I understand that. But personally, I’ve have found that writing in the morning during NaNoWriMo keeps me motivated. It allows me to get through my 1600 words a day early on. This also means any additional words I write that day are a bonus and help get me closer to 50,000 words faster! If you get behind in NaNoWriMo it can be discouraging. So don’t wait. Write first thing and make it a habit. One of the great side effects of this exercise is the way it motivates you to work on your project every day.

Looking for more tips to help with National Novel Writing Month? Try these:

9 Reasons Your Reader is Bored

cheese-classic-lDon’t give your reader an excuse to put your book down! Make sure your book looks more appetizing than a cheese sandwich by avoiding these nine pitfalls.

1) Leisurely Descriptive Passages

Ever read a book where the author spends multiple pages describing a house? Or maybe it’s a spaceship, or the way the light plays upon the windows of a city. Snooze fest!

Of course we need settings so the action doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but we no longer live in a time without photographs or television. Back in the day when we’d never seen an elephant before it was great to spend a whole page describing the lumbering and exotic animal. But you don’t have to describe everything in extensive detail anymore.

2) Leisurely Passages of Back Story and Flashback

One of the easiest ways to get your reader to tune out is with an extensive passage of back story. As authors we need to know all the back story, and we spend countless hours creating it. And because we’ve put in so much time creating the back story it’s tempting to want to share all of it with our readers. But that’s like forcing your reader to look through all 1000 photos from your vacation. They’re going to tune out pretty quickly.  Back stories can help us relate to characters, and many details are necessary, but keep them in shorter passages.

3) Scenes Where the Plot is Not Moving Forward

Plot is a shark, if it doesn’t move, it dies.

It’s tempting to include scenes that explore character, relationships, or mood, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they’re going to bore your reader. Do double duty with your scenes and interweave character development, mood, and themes into your plot-driven scenes.

4) Overstatement or Over Description

Imagine a nervous character who does too many actions to display his nervousness: puffing away on cigarettes, jiggling his legs, spilling his coffee, and twitching. Suddenly the character has turned into a caricature and not a real person. The over abundance of detail can annoy the reader and pull them out of scene. Once the reader is disengaged, you have to work extra hard to gain their attention again.

my-mr-man-book5) Neutral Information 

Sharing history that doesn’t have an impact on what’s happening in scene is the perfect way to distract your reader from the story. Yes, that fight is happening in the story, but hold on a sec while I tell you all about steam technology. This is particularly tricky for a novel that you’re doing research for. Be careful about how much you explain. All information should be on a need-to-know basis.

6) Telling the Story in Retrospect 

It can be hard to keep tension in a scene that’s told in retrospect. Because the event has already happened, the character isn’t in the moment anymore and is telling rather than showing. Consider re-writing the event in-scene to engage the reader.

7) Gratuitous Use of Disasters

One car wreck will grip a reader and put her on the edge of her seat. But gratuitous car wrecks, hurricanes, abuse, or explosive fights will desensitize your reader. Ever watch an action film with fight scene after fight scene, but it doesn’t really impact the story? It’s boring.

Disasters seem like prefect dramatic fodder, but are difficult to pull off. Disasters only create real tension if they’re truly interwoven into the story, characters, and situations. Otherwise they feel like a false tension used to deliberately manipulate the reader.

8) Resolving Problems Too Quickly

Did you spend a bunch of time setting up a problem only to remove the tension of that problem in the next scene? We’re told to torture our characters, but often we like to bail them out as fast as possible. Make your hero struggle and be uncomfortable. This is how he’ll grow. Show what he’s capable of and your reader will become more involved.

9) You’ve Created False Tension

Don’t deliberately crank up the plot at the end of your novel and create false tension. The plot’s tension needs to be there, in some form, all along. If you’re having trouble with the last act of your book it’s because you haven’t set up the conflict and tension correctly in the opening. Look back at the beginning, rather than forcing false tension at the end.

Interested in more topics like this one? Take a look at:

Metaphorically Speaking

“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary

If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.

4 Types of Prologues

Satellite View Of StarsThere’s an ongoing debate about prologues. Do you need them? Are they superfluous? Do they set up the story, or should you cut ’em and get to chapter one already?

Plenty of opinions exist, and many opinions have to do with taste. So, before we jump on the “prologues never contribute to the story” bandwagon, I think the first step is to identify what kind of prologue one is writing and the objective of that prologue. We need to know what we’re writing and why, before we let  the opinions of what’s “in vogue” influence our writing decisions.

Let’s take a look at four different kinds of prologues.

1) Future Protagonist

This prologue is written in the same voice and style as the main story and from the POV of the same protagonist. When done really well, this kind of prologue changes everything the reader thought. As the reader continues with the story, there’s a point when he will come to understand why the prologue was included. When this reason becomes clear, the reader’s perspective of the story undergoes some kind of change. The reader has an “Ah-ha!” moment. An example of this type of prologue can be found in Unleaving by Joan Paton Walsh.

2) Past Protagonist

Something happened to the protagonist in the past that the reader has to know. Batman’s back story is an example of this. You have to know that his parents were murdered to understand the story and his motivations. This type of prologue usually includes a strong emotional event that starts off the story. Examples of this type of prologue: Pixar’s Up, The Scorpio Races, Smoke and Bone, and Batman.

3) Different Point of View

This prologue is not told from the POV of the protagonist. In this case, the writer has to justify this switch; the relevance MUST be made clear and the pay off has to be worth the disruption of the narrative voice. A successful example of this would be Boy in the Burning House by Tim Wynne-Jones.

4) Background Prologue

This is the kind of prologue that gives prologues a bad wrap. This  prologue somehow explains setting and back story. But It can also be a “bit of a trudge.” The writer has to be careful to make sure that the information shared in a background prologue is relevant to the story. It’s not an excuse to share exposition, which is often found in science fiction and fantasy novels that start with trudging prologues. This information has to be truly necessary.

A spin-off of this type of prologue is the background montage, which in effect, is a back story prologue in a film. You see these in movies and television shows like: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit, Amelie, Pushing Daises, and Maleficent. This technique is often more successful in film due to the short time frame. Where as, an author has more time and opportunity to share back story and exposition in a book. The film viewer tends to be more forgiving of a background montage than the reader is of a background prologue.

Looking for more resources on prologues? Try these:

Five Things I Learned From Doing NaNoWriMo

It’s been nine months since I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in under a month. It’s one thing to bask in the manic euphoria of pounding out 50,000 words like an intense sprint around a track. But it’s completely different thing to step back and look at what you’ve written and see if it’s worth anything. Yes, I braved reading my NaNoWriMo draft, and I’ve even begun to draft revisions. But what I’ve discovered in the post-NaNo-creation glow is pretty surprising…

First draft button

1) My First Draft Isn’t Shitty

First off, I’m not a fan of the term shitty first drafts. Yes, it was created to help us deal with our need for perfection in the first draft, but I also think it creates a cycle of negativity. The idea of telling ourselves our drafts are shitty, only reinforces the negative feelings we already fear about our work. Sure, a first draft may not be publishable, but honestly, I never think they’re shitty. However, if there was any instance where my theories on shitty first drafts would be overturned it would be NaNoWriMo … after all, I pumped out this draft in 2 ½ weeks. Only…

My NaNoWriMo Draft isn’t shitty!

Sure, it’s not polished gold, but there are so many important discoveries in it, explorations that led to new plot points, beautiful lines, sassy sections of dialogue, and even entire scenes that are good. Not scenes that are okay… but good!

My point is: we should trust our first drafts more. Trust the joy and the positive energy that can come from freeing yourself up and writing quickly. Trust the fact that you do know what you’re doing and your writing is better than you think it is!

female-empowerment2) Revisions are Empowering

Okay, so my first draft isn’t complete crap, but there’s still plenty of work to do. The second great discovery about writing a quick first draft is that when you approach revisions you immediately know what to do to make the book better. Revisions don’t become nail-biting, hair-pulling, exercises in frustration. Instead, revision become empowering!

For me, it can be the despair, the sense that I don’t know what to do, that makes writing so hard. But revising this novel has been invigorating and fun. There’s power and purpose in sitting down with raw material and knowing exactly what to do to shape it. It helps me to see how much I already know about crafting good stories, and that I’m able to do it with intention.  

old chronometer3) It Doesn’t Take as Long as I Think to Write a Novel

Looking back at my NaNoWriMo time sheets, I’ve discovered that I spent an average of 1½ hours writing per day. Yes, there were a few days where I put in 3 to 4 hours in a sitting. But mostly it was 1 ½ hours a day. As I’ve moved on to revision, I’ve also put in an average of 1 1/2 hours per day. By keeping a time sheet I’ve started to see how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time. In fact, I haven’t even put in a full month’s worth of work into this novel yet!

One of our big struggles with writing is finding the time to get it done. But I’ve been floored to discover how much I can accomplish with only 1 ½ hours a day! I bet most of you could find 1 or 2 hours in your day to write.

no_plan_road_sign4) Scenes That Went Nowhere…

Not every section of my NaNoWriMo draft works. But, I discoverd a pattern to the pages that fell flat or went nowhere. These scenes were searching for direction, and without it they floundered.

In my pre-planning stages I outlined and created scene-cards for the scenes I knew existed. I did, however, leave a few blank. I made the excuse that I’d figure it out later, while writing. It turns out that every scene I promised to figure out later on, didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’d know the general action of a scene, but the things that really killed my momentum were not knowing what my character wanted in the scene, or what his or her emotional change would be. All the scenes with a clear character goal and emotional change came alive on the page. Perhaps this is the through line I needed to guide me while writing really fast.

blinders5) Everything You Think You Know is Wrong! Or… Don’t Put On Writing Blinders.

I was certain that NaNoWriMo was going to be a huge failure. I had some snobby ideas about how a novel should be written. I was certain those participating in NaNoWriMo were wasting their time. But boy was I wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

I don’t think I will write every novel in my future this way. But I do think it will be a great way to write some of them. But man, if I’d stayed in my stuffy singular way of looking at things, I would have never discovered this amazing tool and these important lessons.

So get out there and try new things with your writing. Try things you’re certain will not work. Allow yourself to fail. We never know what will work until we put it into practice and give it a whirl.

What Did You Learn from NaNoWriMo?

Did anyone else participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you re-read your work? Started revisions? What discoveries have you made?

Transitions in Time

The landscape of time can be a ticklish beast, particularly when writing. We live our lives in a linear fashion, always moving forward, never backwards or sideways. Our characters often live their lives linearly as well. In fact, books themselves must be read in a front to back fashion where chapter one leads to chapter two and so on. Yet time – or story time – is more malleable in a novel than it is in real life. Engaging a reader in the whole history of a world and character requires flashbacks, summarization of memories, and whole scenes that make us time travelers. Or as my favorite time traveler Doctor Who would say:

As authors, the question is how do we deal with all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff without disorienting our reader? Jumping around in time is a luxury we can explore, but walking blindly into a flashback, without any cues to the reader, will break the fictive dream and draw attention to itself. It will commit the cardinal sin of writing, which is to remind the reader that they are reading.

One of the best ways to transition a reader in time is through the careful crafting of language. Words are our tools and used craftily, that can lull a reader through an invisible portal from one time space to another.

Let’s look at four techniques to help a reader flawlessly transition through story time.

mango1) Word Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of sounds, syllables, objects, and words. In the excerpt from The House on Mango Street below, the repetition of the words know and because are used as a portal from one time period to the next. The words move us from the present day story space to a new location in Mexico, and then back again.

“I have never seen my Papa cry and I don’t know what to do. I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico, all the uncles and aunts will be there, and they will have a black-and-white photo take in front of the tomb … because this is how they send the dead away in that country. Because I am the oldest, my father has told me first and now it is my turn to tell the others.”

2) Sentence and Phrase Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of phrases, images, and sentence structure.

In this second example from The House on Mango Street, the repetition of a sentence structure creates a rhythm and punctuation to the paragraph. It is the repeating words along with the repeating rhythm that transitions the reader from impression to impression.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings … songs like sobbing. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine.” (The House on Mango Street)

humanbraincloud_shot13) Word Association

Remember being a kid and playing the word association game? The mind likes to make connections through visual images evoked by single words. You can also use this technique to create transitions in time and space.

The word association game begins with hair in the example below. It then riffs off of imagery to transition from hair to bread, thus moving the reader into a memory.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you… is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell  when she makes room for you on her side of the bed … the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”  (The House on Mango Street)

wordUp-44) Question and Answer

You can also use a question to transition the reader from one time to the next. The question creates curiosity in the reader’s mind and the answer works as a transition into the new time space.

“No address. No Name. Nothing in his pockets. Ain’t it a shame. Only Marin can’t explain why it mattered … but what difference does it make? He wasn’t anything to her. He wasn’t her boyfriend … Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback … How does she explain it?  She met him at a dance. Geraldo in his shiny shirt and green pants…” (The House on Mango Street)

There are a lot ways to transition between time and space in a story. In later posts we can discuss things like: cause and effect, causality link-chains, or pause button violations. For now, focus on the magic of phrasing and how your words can makes a transition seem inevitable, natural, and invisible.

See these time transition techniques (and more) in practice by reading and studying these awesome stories:

  • How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien
  • The House on Mango Street by Sanda Cicneros
  • Small Damages by Beth Kephart