Saturday, June 18, 2011

An Unstructured Mind

I think I have an unstructured mind. Sometimes the greatest challenge in my writing has to do with the fact that it’s really hard for me to organize my thoughts. I’m hoping it’s one of those weaknesses that becomes a strength.

When I first moved out on my own, I really struggled with the feeling of chaos and disorganization, even before I had children. If I did things when I felt like they needed to be done, I didn’t do them at all. Finally, I worked hard at organizing my life, and came up with a system in which everything had its place. I became so organized that many people now see it as a natural strength, something that is just a part of my character. They don’t realize what I had to go through to acquire it.

Right now I feel like I am doing the same thing all over again in my writing. I am learning how much a story benefits from organization, before it is ever written. For example, if you have places for everything before the mess comes in, it will be easier to see what needs to stay and what needs to go.

And yet, it’s hard to find a place for everything before it comes in, isn’t it? I mean, how do you know what you will need to make room for before it gets here? Some things you can anticipate, but others…

For me it is a process of going back and forth a little. I “freewrite”, allowing my self periods of creative mess-making in the confines of one “room” (folder, whatever). Then I pick out the parts that are the gems, things that I need to make room for somewhere. It opens up creative channels; and for me, since it is not “real” writing, takes the pressure off and makes it so I don’t have to worry about organizing that mess. I just pick what I want out of it, and close the door. For the sake of creativity, in other words, I allow myself one messy room in the house.

I used to think I needed a certain word count every day. Now I have a much more relaxed approach to writing, focusing more on the time spent with it rather than forcing something that the story is not ready for. I simply do what needs to be done. Freewriting. Plotting. Structuring. Writing a scene. Editing a scene. It may seem like a slower process up front, because I am not getting a certain number of words written, but I don’t know if it is slower in the end. It might mean far less work later on. It might just make for a better end product. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." — W. Somerset Maugham

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Sometimes I just don’t understand this whole “tension” thing. I mean, maybe we need a better definition or something. What is it in stories that keeps us turning pages, exactly? It’s not tension alone, not just a fight. I get bored quickly, in fact, when a battle goes on too long. And I hate problems just for the sake of problems. Then there are other times when something captivates me and I don’t know why at all. I analyze it, but there doesn’t seem to be any recognizable tension in the scene.

I’m reading a book about story structure that deals with scene and sequel, and I’m trying to figure out if people actually, consciously apply this sort of thing when they write. At the same time I’m analyzing this book I’m reading and I love so much: Dexter. According to the book on structure, scene is made of about 90% tension. Scene is also a play by play type of thing where there is no summary, no real depth of thoughts or feelings, just action between one person and another.

So there are “scenes” in Dexter that fit the profile of scene as far as play by play, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the tension is, and yet I am still riveted. Also, sometimes he goes into periods of deep thought, which is fascinating to me, and he’s not always interacting with another person. For example, this man, a serial killer, takes his girlfriend’s son out fishing, and they just fish. No tension; a lot of thought; not a lot of interaction. And yet fascinating. I maintain that there’s no tension because I know Dexter won’t kill the boy—you don’t even fear that possibility. But what does fascinate me is that here is this serial killer, being domestic. It’s outside of his norm. So is that tension? And if so, can’t we describe the term better so that people who are learning to write, like me, know how to create it?

Do you have any ideas as far as what makes a page-turner?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pushing On

I think life is like climbing a mountain that never relents. You keep thinking after you cross this ridge, that will be it, things will be easier. But it never happens. If anything, you cross a ridge and see clearly enough to realize it only gets steeper.

I suppose it’s not always a vertical climb. I seem to recall times where I’ve climbed steadily, barely even winded, enjoying the brisk mountain air and feeling an infusion of joy to the soul. Sometimes it tapers off into little mountain pastures, where you sit and rest a spell and check out the magnificent view below. Other times, however, it’s extraordinarily steep, and it’s all you can do to crawl, praying your muscles won’t give way lest you plummet to your death.

The “mountains” we deal with in writing come in several forms, I guess. Since I started with this whole novel-writing-thing several years ago, I’ve felt plenty of discouragement, for example, all kinds of voices (both external and internal) telling me it can’t be done, at least not by me, and am I wasting all my time on something that will never succeed? Etc, etc. But in all of that discouragement, I got through because I had plenty of something on the other side of the line, pushing me: motivation. I didn’t care if the mountain was impossible to climb, I was going to do it or die in the effort.

Suddenly, however, it’s the motivation I’m lacking, and that scares me more than anything. Now my thoughts are I don’t even want to write; why am I getting up at 4:30 a.m. to do something I have no desire to do? I think probably the root of the problem is that I have so many other things to worry about that I can’t believe I even care about making up stories. I almost wonder, even, if I lost perspective somewhere in all my determination.

It’s also hard, I’ve noticed, to come up with something creative when you feel empty inside. What’s the point? I wonder. Have I lost my purpose? Am I supposed to care this much about writing? What am I supposed to be doing? Who am I? I want to get in touch with that last bit—find that. Find meaning. I don’t want to be afraid, and I don’t want to fail.

This could be the thing that does me in—but still I resist, as far as I am able (okay, maybe I have occasionally slept in an extra hour). I just don’t have it in me to stop climbing the mountain. In anguish the other day I thought, What do I do if I can’t go on, if I collapse? And that’s when the image of crawling came into my mind. Sometimes it is all we can do.

My husband is reading a little book about the 23rd Psalm and he read part of it to me the other day. “The Lord is my Shepherd... He maketh me to lie down in greener pastures.” Maybe we have to trust in that when we don’t want to leave the pasture, so to speak, that we are already in. Maybe every ridge leads to a greener pasture before you must, of necessity, start climbing again.

I also just read a quote in Writer’s Digest that gave me the encouragement I needed to keep climbing. It said, “Whatever you choose to do, give it everything you have, no matter what. No effort is trivial if the effort is your all.”

Well, I don’t think I’ve given it my all yet, so I’m pushing on.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I’m An Impostor

Is it just me, or do we all go around pretending as if we know what we are doing?

I think it’s just me.

This question stems from the fact that I am presently having to face one of my greatest fears—to go back to work as a Registered Nurse.

I think the world is conspiring against me. I feel like a character in a book for whom things just keep going wrong and getting worse. I mean, doesn’t the world know who I am? Don’t they know that someone should have delicately suggested to me early on in nursing school that I might want to consider another profession, one that if you kill people off one by one it’s far more socially acceptable? Like being a writer, for example. (Note to self: Do not give future employer blog address)

I’ve been having nightmares of the sort where you go to work and realize you have forgotten your clothes. Nightmares where you wake up quite relieved that it didn’t really happen—it couldn't’ really happen. Not in real life, right?

Or could it? One time—in real life—I went to a fancy dinner and realized when I got there that I forgot to change out of my puffy slippers, causing me to wonder if I could accidentally show up in only a robe someday. Or worse.

In my latest nightmares, if I happen to find my way to the hospital, not only am I missing certain essential articles of clothing, but I can’t seem to find the floor I’m supposed to be working on. And if I do find the floor, I forget to check on certain patients for the entire day, and when I go to give report, someone comes and tells me they are dead. Nevermind that it was a postpartum floor. Or, in some dreams, I forget to show up to work for weeks when I suddenly remember I have a job—which is probably in the best interest of the people I’d have killed.

I think I might actually be from an alien world and I’ve been put here as an experiment—told I should try to blend in, act like all those human people.

But the truth is, I’m an impostor.

Postscript: Lest you think I’m completely incompetent (partly, yes, but not completely), I have actually worked over three years of my past life (pre-writing life) as a nurse and have not yet forgotten, or killed, anyone. Cross your fingers that my track record stays clean.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I Love You Not

Confession: My fourth grade daughter is more talented than I am. I must say that while many of my confessions have a bit of a negative air—this one is decidedly positive. I couldn’t be more proud.

Her past work has included a Thanksgiving tale from the point of view of the turkey—an apparently undead turkey, who manages to get away—with very humorous results. She has written lyrics and music to songs, both serious and funny. Today for my blog, I thought I would share her latest work, a poem she wrote for Valentine’s Day. I find her sense of humor delightful. Frankly, I’m surprised her teacher didn’t insist on sending this to all the publishing houses—but maybe that’s just the mother speaking. Still, I say give her a few years and let’s see what she does. It’s called:

I Love You Not

I love you, I love you,

I love you, Old Man,

If I had a swatter

I would give you a wham!

If I were some peanut butter

I would make you feel sticky.

If I were a slug

I’d make you feel icky.

I love you, I love you

I love you so whiney.

If I had a turtle

I would make you feel slimy.

If I were a doctor

I would give you a shot.

If I were a mailman

I’d give you a lot.

(Shel Silverstein, watch out.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Does Structure Thwart Inspiration? Part 2

I recently read an article in Writer’s Digest that has been most helpful to me, called “Story Trumps Structure”. It expressed a liberating idea: We don’t need three acts like everyone says we do. Why not four? Or ten? Or as many as the story needs? If your story is boring because you’ve tried to force it into some mold it doesn’t want to go into, WD (specifically Steven James) says, ‘Why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts [instead of the conventionally accepted three]? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?” This was the first time I considered that maybe the structure should serve the needs of the story rather than the other way around.

He gave an example of a friend who argued the necessity of the three acts, saying they form the skeleton of the story. He didn’t know how to respond until later that week when he went to an aquarium and saw an octopus. It gets along just fine without a skeleton, he realized. I loved his next words: “A storyteller’s goal is to give life to a story, not to stick in bones that aren’t necessary for that species.”

I like it when big ideas can be boiled down into a single, simple concept. For example, the whole of the gospel can be boiled down to love God and everybody else. In my pondering over this matter, I have decided that storytelling boils down to pretty much one thing: don’t be boring.

Follow inspiration. What is inspiration, after all? My definition, on the fly, is a creative sort of energy, mixed up with excitement and a sublime sense of possibility. I did look it up, however, and I like what it says best: “To be filled with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence”. When we are inspired, we engender the birth of an idea and feel a certain confirmation of its potential. Too much structure is you trying to change that, or at least filter it. Story is best discovered in letting it flow.

That said, you do need both. The trick, I think, is in the approach, in how to separate them and then put them together. I believe there’s no one right way to do it and no way to get around the fact that, regardless of your approach, it’s hard work.

“To the rationally minded the mental processes of the intuitive appear to work backwards.” —Frances Wickes

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Does Structure Thwart Inspiration? Part 1

Sometimes, I admit, I use structure as an excuse to delay my writing of the actual story. I look up any number of rules and paradigms and try to apply them all—which I don’t recommend. Sometimes my brain refuses to let go of the notion that more is better. I beat the poor story to death before it even has a chance to take its first breath. Control issues, I guess.

It’s fear that holds us back really, makes us look for excuses to do anything other than actually write the darn thing. In my defense, however, this fear does have some sound reasoning behind it. When I wrote my first and only complete novel, I read a book that made me want to plunge right in, whether I knew what I was doing or not. It was called “No Plot? No Problem”, written by the NaNoWriMo dude. I was excited and encouraged by its message: It doesn’t matter if you suck, just start writing.

So I paid no attention to form. I didn’t care if I wrote the word “banana” seven times before I could think of something else to write, in an effort to not let the pen stop (yes I was writing longhand back then), but it was freeing. It was wonderful. It took me three months instead of only one, but I did have near 100,000 words by the end and a really good idea of what my story was. Indeed, I was convinced it was already at least as good as many stories already published… until I read it.

To be brief, I’ve spent the last several years with that story, trying to make form out of chaos. A very hard job, especially when you’re an inflexible person like me. Let’s just say I’ve learned to be much more flexible in the last few years than I have ever been in my life.

In my fear to never have a nightmare like that again, I was determined this time around to structure and know the story well, ahead of time, to have form already in place and perhaps only have to polish it up when I am done. Easy, right? I have anywhere from ten to twenty paradigms I’ve tried to apply to the structure of this one story, somewhat simultaneously. And as I said, I am rigid and demanding. Trying to force compliance out of a story is a lot like having a baby but insisting that it has to look exactly like the picture you drew of it before it can be born.

Obviously, I have to find a balance somewhere between these two extremes.

Ok. This, I just realized, is a really long blog, so I’m going to save the second half for next week—yes, the second half. But it will be the half that tells you what I learned—what would be termed the resolution of my story, according to many a writing paradigm. But for now, a quote:

“To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.” —Giorgio De Chirico

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Kind of Beast

I must confess, I’m a little drawn to the dark side. OK—I’m drawn like a magnet. I just got through reading a book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I have to admit I drink this stuff up like a lush at a jubilee. What is wrong with me? I must not be the only one in the world, right? And I’m not really a serial killer, I just like to read about them. Right?

Whatever it is—apparently, I passed on the genetic mutation to my son. This boy, who has the name of an archangel, loves Darth Vader. When he was old enough to talk he told me he wanted to grow up to be Darth Vader one day.

Uh oh. Better nip this, I thought.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be Luke Skywalker?” I asked. “Luke Skywalker is cool.”

“But Darth Vader is cooler,” he told me, this child whose favorite color is black because it’s “so dark”.

Yikes. Nevertheless, I agree. Vader is, in his own way, cooler. I mean, what is more interesting than someone who was such a chosen being (as Anakin was supposed to be) yet who falls—so very, very far.

I do get excited about the dark parts of story. I’m currently outlining for a new story and I find that I’m not content to write solely from the point of view of my protagonist. I need to get into the head of the villain… I need to. I just want to put in little snippets here and there throughout the text, like scintillating flashes of starry light. Fun, fun, fun.

What about you all, normal people out there? Do you enjoy playing the part of the villain in your stories? Do you enjoy reading about them?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Beast Within

I have a beast that lives inside me.

It questions me. Constantly whispers that there is something very wrong.

Something else tells me that to be good at writing, you have to risk everything. Tell the truth. But that can be scary. It’s so much easier to be pretentious, to hide behind something that is not really you, because it’s less risky. There’s less on the line. If people don’t like you, your whole world will not fall apart.

The beast is my greatest weakness. I know, intellectually, that this is stupid, this fear of another person’s opinion. This fear of risk, of failure. But the fear is there, ever present, like a caged beast that shakes the bars just to make its presence known once in a while.

For some reason it helps me feel better just to write about this fear, admit it’s there, this beast, expose it to the light of day. Show everyone, and then lock it back up again. I was going to write about something else, but I couldn’t hear anything over the shaking of the bars. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand."

Whenever you write, you take a risk. The best writing takes the biggest risks, chances the greatest failures. The irony is you have to allow yourself to fail in order to succeed.

The closer we get to ourselves, to that inner core right down to the level of the beasts—exposing them—the more we allow ourselves to be who we are. Without looking to the world for approval of what’s inside, the more we can become who we were meant to be.

“It’s not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” —Seneca

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Creating Worlds, Creating Life

I want to create worlds.

A very lofty goal, yes. To take words and create something that transcends the world we live in, takes you to a place you know must be real—it has to be real—even though it plainly tells you it’s only fiction. Things that spark my imagination, light a fire inside me. Once you have been to the best of the fictional worlds, you can never fully return to this world again. Not without some of it trailing back with you. It’s real. Real in the fact that it will never let you go.

The question I have is this: Why?

Why do some books feel so real while others so obviously contrived? I’ve read books that convince me there’s secret populations among us, perhaps even worlds under our feet, worlds in the universe. Among us are immortals, vampires, witches, wizards. There are books that cause a little stir of both excitement and dread as I wonder how our world will transform in the future.

Is it the amount of time the author has spent in that world? As in, the more they develop it, the more real it becomes? Or are they simply gifted with a better imagination? Is it because they don’t explore by rules, but instead let instinct rule? Do they free-write their world until it becomes a living, breathing thing? Do they base it off of something real inside of them? I wish I knew their secret.

Here’s my list of books that have taken me to my favorite worlds: Harry Potter (the first book that made me want to write), The Stand by Stephen King, The Giver, Hunger Games, Twilight. I also read a book about a girl stuck on as island when I was little, and that island has never left me. Is, in fact, the inspiration to the deserted island in my first novel. I wish I could remember the name. But it does bring to mind Lord of the Flies—another cool island. The Hobbit. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Even, in a weird way, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Yes, many of these are books that everybody lists, and I think for good reason. They have all managed to create a place that embeds itself in the mind forever. How can you get more real than that?

There are also books with characters so real they stay with you. A couple that come immediately to mind are I Am Not a Serial Killer and the Stephanie Plum novels. I don’t know why, but those characters stick with me.

Do you have any thoughts on how it’s possible to take inanimate things like words and create life? Or, what are your favorite story worlds?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Curse of the Sagging Middle

Confession: My middle sags.

What is it about the middle? Whether you’re on a diet or writing a book, the curse seems to be the same. It’s as if the middle is a dumping ground, a place for things to go that have no real purpose.

How is this problem solved? I’m writing an outline for my next book right now, and I realize I have a tendency to gloss over the middle. I start with the end In mind, according to my favorite writing paradigm from Dan Wells. Easy. I do the beginning, which is opposite from the end. Also easy. Midpoint, not too hard, it’s just a turning point somewhere in the middle—a mini-disaster so to speak.

But the other half of the book. Everything after the midpoint and before the end. The place where you feel like you have to put a bunch of filler and fluff so you can call it a real book. In my outline, I wrote: “She needs to go through some sort of training.” Glossed over, indeed.

So, how do you build the muscle of the middle so that it not only performs but looks good, too?

To carry its weight, I feel the answer is to treat the middle as a story within the story. I have even heard it said that after the midpoint is when the real story starts. Yikes.

For example, in Percy Jackson, the midpoint was when he was called to go on the quest to find the lightning bolt. The middle, therefore, consisted of the adventures he had in finding it. In Harry Potter, the midpoint was discovering there was a sorcerer’s stone, and everything after was focused on their efforts to obtain it. In both instances, these represented the bulk of the story.

Yeesh, I guess the middle is important—it’s where we tell what we really want to tell. So why is it so hard?

“Yesterday brought the beginning, tomorrow brings the end but somewhere in the middle we've become the best of friends.” -Unknown

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Confession: I often overcomplicate things.

The thing I need to learn is that simpler really is better. (P.S. I had to rewrite that sentence three times. The first thing I said was that I needed to more fully integrate the maxim: the simpler, the better. Yikes.)

I admit wholeheartedly that my fear is simple equals stupid. When the actual deal is, if you try too hard, sometimes that’s when you look stupid. I think Stephen King said it best: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

This is also relevant for larger scale things, like plot. Sometimes, when I write an outline, I think it sounds way too cheesy. Yet, when it comes to outlines, cheesy is good. An example of this is when I went recently to watch Tangled in the theaters. ****Spoiler alert: Skip to next paragraph if you haven’t seen Tangled yet and don’t want me to mess it up for you****** At the end, when all seems hopeless and she begins to cry, my first thought was that the magic would be in her tears. My next thought was, no, that would be stupid. Then, when it actually happened, I was very excited. It worked! How did it work? Just a second ago I thought it would be stupid. It was a message to me. What at first may seem cheesy in theory can be made to work well. The simpler the better.

The irony: It’s actually harder to boil down the complex into something simple than to take something simple and make it more complex. Have you ever tried writing a one-line summary of your entire novel? If you haven’t already, try to do so now. Do it in 15 words or less. And make it sound compelling. And really try to get across the main plot point of your book. If you could do it easily, you’re probably a simplicity genius and you don’t need this blog.

My favorite quotes on simplicity, because I love quotes!

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Persistence is Key

Confession: Sometimes reading books about how to write makes me feel like I am strapped to an iron chair in a locked closet that is full of darkness and spiders, with nothing to eat but dust. And those spiders, I guess.

What I'm trying, but not really succeeding, to say is: too much help is sometimes no help at all.

Since I often turn to writing books the way a person who is making dinner might turn to a cookbook, I often fail to use inspiration. As with anything, there is a balance. Writing books can be helpful, but applied too rigidly, will hurt you.

Probably the best advice I’ve received from the array of writing books I’ve read over the years is some form of “just keep writing”. There is also “You have to be persistent”, or even “butt in chair time”. A close companion to this that I hear less often is, “believe in yourself”. I went to a writer’s conference once where James Dashner was asked how he did it and he kind of shrugged, feeling a little silly perhaps, and said, “I don’t know how I do it, I just go by instinct.” This is the answer that really helps us open the door, after all is said and done. This is what calls to inspiration, even if inspiration only graces us with her presence occasionally. Though she might not come every time we open the door, we have to open the door so that when she does come, we will be ready.

And inspiration likes doors that are open wide.

Shakti Gawain said, “We will discover the nature of our own particular genius when we stop trying to conform to our own or other peoples’ models, learn to be ourselves, and allow our natural channel to open.” Real help is anything that encourages you to be creative, even and especially if that creativity requires you to break rules.

We all have an inner compass. We must learn to trust it. Writing is an act of faith, and when you act in faith, you set things in motion. Don’t fall into the temptation to overthink it. Easy really does do it, eventually—if you are persistent.

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” John Holt