Thursday, July 31, 2014

I Can't Write (How to Write When You're Stressed)

I can’t write right now.

I’m staring at a white page and nothing is okay. My hair is white, weak and scratchy, burning my nose with the $5 bleach kit I put in last night. There are people demanding food at non-food times, people who want my attention though these are the minutes I’ve carved out for myself. This is the time when I’m supposed to be writing – the first time, in fact, that a monitor and a keyboard have been available to me in almost a week. But I am cold, I am uncomfortable, and if I’m being honest this morning, I am unhappy.

I don’t want to write right now.

Writing is hard work. Oh, not like working out. Working out, they say, is harder. It hurts your muscles. Makes you breathe funny. But while you’re doing that, everything else floats away, the pain, the thoughts, even the feelings. For a little while, you can stop being yourself.

Writing isn’t like that at all. When you’re writing, you have to dig down into your being. You take on the role of emotional spelunker. You’re not training your body to be obedient while focusing on muscle and pain. Instead, you’re tearing off delicate pieces of your soul, cutting random shapes into those pieces, and unfolding them into lacy snowflakes with which you will decorate other people’s lives.

Writing hurts.

And I am already hurting. I do not want to do it more.

In the two hours since I started writing this, I have made soup for two humans and boiled noodles for a third. I have opened the door for little hands twice. I have snuggled. I have kissed. I have indulged. And I have now reached two hundred thirty words, saying almost a third of what I wanted to say. I didn’t want to start. I didn’t want to put those words down. And if I was going to start, I sure as spice didn’t want to be interrupted. I didn’t want to have to pause from breaking myself into a thousand shards just to turn what was in my head into something real.

I did it anyway.

You knew that’s what I was going to say, didn’t you? Write anyway. Write through the disorganized misery of your broken-down life. Take the little pieces of yourself and order them on the page just so. While you’re doing it, you might find a new way to put them together. A better way.  Even if you don’t, you’ll have gained something. You were going to suffer anyway, why not have a permanent record of it? Something that can better others?

But how?

I’m going to make this very simple for you. At the end of the day, I’m a simple girl. All this philosophizing stimulates the crap out of my brain, but it only makes me ache for the practical consummation of an orderly 3-step plan. So here it is. Three steps to writing when you just can’t. Three steps to follow if you're like me and you just don't know how to write when you're stressed

   1)      Make it really, really easy on yourself.

Keep a blank notebook and sharp pencils everywhere you can find them. Right now I am separated from my computer so writing on it is almost impossible. My novel is suffering. My critiques are desolate. But I’ve got a fat blank notebook and fat yellow pencils that are right at my picnic table. That notebook is netting me flash fiction. Perspective practice. Juicy short stories I will be able to type in later, revise, and sell to magazine markets for real money. Not bad for a time when I just want to be MOPING about how I WANT MY COMPUTER BACK.

On the other hand, if you are working on the computer, keep your documents open always and hit save every time you do anything at all. Walk away to do dishes? Hit save. Pick up a kid to kiss a boo-boo? Save. Minimize the document because the boss is walking in? Hit save first! If at all possible, don’t close that document for anything or anyone. As long as it is open you can dive right back in.

   2)  Set goals for yourself

In times of great stress, finding motivation can be difficult. Set easy-to-hit but still meaningful goals for each day. Not only will you end the day with something accomplished (there’s a world of difference between 7 days of writing nothing and 7 days of writing 500 words each day) but you will also be giving yourself a reason to get up each morning.

Don’t underestimate the feeling of accomplishment you will get from meeting your goal each day. In times of stress, that kind of emotional currency will become priceless.

If you get to the end of the day and you haven’t been able to find motivation to write, sit down and write out a train of thought. Write what it was that kept you from writing. Lie about it if you have to. Write about a hurricane that drug you away from the desk. Write about how you’re dying from a vampire-velociraptor bite. Writing about how your employer is really the head of a zombie drug cartel and your busy work is a complicated money laundering scheme. Write ANYTHING. Once you turn the tap on, the words will flow, but sometimes you will have to prime the pump first.

   3) Write honestly

Don’t try to be something you aren’t. Want to know what hhe hardest part of writing this whole story was? Penning the words, “I am unhappy.” I’m a happy girl. That’s my personal brand. I have a beautiful smile. I wear bright hair and have a houseful of gorgeous, funny children and a happy marriage and God forbid I pretend for a second that any of that is only a fraction of the truth of who I am as a human being. But guess what? There’s magic in that honesty. I'll tell you what the magic is...

I’m not unhappy anymore.

Having put all those words down, having let them flow out of me and onto the paper, I feel happy again. Things aren’t hopeless. This time of trouble is only a season and it will pass. Had I not slipped open a vein to bleed the words onto the page, that poison would still be coursing through my bloodstream.

Listen, I don’t know what you’re going through. Poverty, sickness, fear, a lack of resources, a lack of time, a lack of motivation. I would like to offer a simple word of encouragement. Don’t give up. This is not the time to lose hope. Today is the day when you decide whether you are a writer or not. Anyone can write in a time of zephyrous inspiration. A writer will buckle down and write out the storm.

Now please excuse me. I am going to go put some red fire into my hair. I’m not a giving up kind of girl.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I Am Beginning to Write a Post About Filters Or: A Post About Filters

By Jen Ponce

When I read M. A. Ray’s post about filtering, my mind went in a different direction than hers. She wrote about filtering as a way of going down deep into our characters to tease out their authentic selves, to make them live on the page. Excellent advice, that. When I first saw the word filter, it made me think of the way we keep ourselves from being immediate in our fiction. I asked her if she’d mind if I riffed off her post and she said no, so here it is.

First of all, what does filtering mean? It’s like a muffler for your ears when listening to music or your foot dragging the ground when riding the merry-go-round. In writing, it keeps the reader from being immersed in your story. It’s a hesitation to jump into the action; whether that hesitation stems from a lack of confidence or a bad habit you’ll have to determine for yourself.

Here are some examples of filtering and immediacy.

Filtered: “She began to run to him.”
Immediate: “She ran to him.”

Filtered: “She started to laugh.”
Immediate: “She laughed.”

Both these examples deal with the same type of problem. Instead of letting the characters do something, the author pulls her punch. Let me tell you right now, I don’t want to read about a character who is always beginning to do something. I want to see them doing it. “She began to make love to him.” Boring! “She took off his shirt.” Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. See the difference? One holds me back and the other invites me in.

Filtered: “I felt that he was teasing me.”
Immediate: “He teased me.”

Filtered: “I thought he was a jerk.”
Immediate: “He was a jerk.”

When we are writing from a character’s point of view, we are showing the reader what that character’s world looks like through their eyes. Often, our need to remind the reader that, “Hey! You are inside the head of a fictional character!” creates padding that ultimately takes a reader away from the writing, rather than deeper into it.

Also, check out how weak those filtered sentences are. “I felt you were mean.” This isn’t therapy, this is a book. We don’t need no stinking “I” statements here (unless your character is in therapy and is the type who would use “I” statements, of course.)

Here’s a longer passage. See if you can identify the filtering before checking out the second, more immediate passage.

     Susan gazed out the window at the black cat sitting in a spot of 
sunshine on her lawn. She felt like the cat was a sign from the gods, 
though she didn’t know what kind of sign it could be. Death? Weren’t 
black cats bad luck? She thought that signs from the universe should 
come with handy labels. It would make things easier.

Did you spot the filters? Let’s see if we can eliminate them.

     A black cat sat in a spot of sunshine on Susan’s lawn. The cat was a
sign from the gods, though she wasn’t sure what kind of sign it could 
be. Death? Weren’t black cats bad luck? Signs from the universe 
should come with handy labels. It would make things easier.

When the filters are removed, it makes the passage tighter and puts you more directly into the character’s head. You don’t need to tell the reader that Susan gazed out the window because the reader already knows he is in Susan’s head. What she sees, he sees, so there’s no need to put a flashing neon sign there screaming, “We are still in Susan’s head!”

When you remove the filters in your writing, you unearth your writer’s voice. Think of it as chipping away the rock to find the gold. If you’re a beginning writer, you’re probably burying your voice in mounds of filtering. Eliminate it and let your voice be heard.

(Even more experienced writers fall into the filtering habit. Here’s this paragraph in its original form: “Removing filtering is also away to unearth your voice as a writer. Think of it as chipping away the rock to find the gold. I’m guessing if you’re a beginning writer, you’re burying your voice in mounds of filtering. Eliminate it and your voice will be able to be heard.”)

Filtered: “He noticed her hands were covered in mud from the garden.”
Immediate: “Her hands were covered in the mud from the garden.”

As long as you’ve established that we are in a particular character’s head, you don’t need to tell us he noticed something. Let us notice with him, which is what we do in the immediate example.

Filtered: “Jane remembered when her husband used to bring her flowers. Now he only brought trouble.”

Immediate: “Her husband used to bring her flowers. Now he only brought trouble.”

When you take us back into the character’s memory, let us go back with her. Don’t tell us she’s remembering, show us. (Hear that? Filtering is telling.) Readers are smart. As long as you have clearly established the view point character you don’t need to smack them on the head every time your character remembers something.

As with everything in writing, these are not hard and fast rules. Yes, the pacing is often improved when you eliminate filters in your writing. However, there are times when the story dictates that you need a filter. You are ultimately the master of your writing. If there’s a passage that needs filtering because you want to slow the pace, then for the love of all that’s unholy put it in. The important thing to know is that this filtering problem exists and it can water down and weaken your story.

Here’s a list of some filtering words to look out for:

She heard
He saw
She realized
He decided
She figured
He touched
She smelled
He started
She began
He would start
She thought she might
He felt
She believed

If you’re game, post some “Filtered” and “Immediate” passages of your own in the comments. If you can think of other filters, post them too. I’m always up for improving my writing.

Writing exercise: Take out the filters in this passage and rewrite it to make it your own. Post your results in the comments. Come on. It’ll be fun. (I think it will be fun, maybe.)

     Damion knew that the aliens were planning to take over the world and 
felt sad that he would never get the chance to tell Lydia how much he loved 
her. He began to cry, thinking about all the missed opportunities he’d had 
to ask her to marry him, to make love to her. The aliens would enslave them 
all and he would have to start wearing one-piece unitards. He didn’t think 
Lydia would love him once she saw him in a unitard. His body wasn’t made 
for Spandex, not at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Purpose of My Decisions

A lot of my writing is about taking narratives and scenes and character archetypes that I really enjoy and repackaging in the order I find most optimal. I think perhaps a lot of writers work this way. In the process, something different than its constituent parts begins to take shape. My goal is to keep that ‘something different’ as something intriguingly different, rather than simply stuffing jello down my pants because that is not a thing one usually does. Not that I’m judging if that’s your deal. 

To get to intriguing, I need to be mindful about the kind of decisions I make when I am building a world, populating it and giving those characters neat things to do and think and feel. My usual process is to start with the setting and concept. For example, I’ll detail here how I’m going about developing a concept for a series of books I’d like to someday write.

I’d really like to do a series of science fiction books about people flying around and having adventures. Well, there’s plenty of material for that. One of my main inspirations is Star Trek and specifically the culture of the Federation. How would such a government actually come about? What kind of tension might there be between the dual missions of Starfleet? Which episodes and themes do I find the most compelling in the series? I’ve already done a bit of alternative worldbuilding for the Star Trek games I occasionally run, so I can take some of the answers I had to those questions and run with them in my own space.

How hard do I want the science part of this fiction to be? Well, certainly harder than Star Trek, as you can run into a lot of plot pitfalls with a device like a transporter. I’ve decided that I wanted a certain degree of verisimilitude to enhance the ability of the reader to be able to connect with the setting, so I have to be careful about these things. On the other end of the spectrum, however is being ‘too real’. If I’m flat out extrapolating how ship to ship combat would work, for example, it would make the most sense to have everything run by AIs at incredible speeds and distances that are much less visually interesting than the kind of whiz-bang X-Wing hijinks we are used to seeing. From a tone and theme perspective, it’s also problematic: it’s hard to have nail-biting tension in combat when it’s over before you even realize it started.

I figure I might be able to find a happy medium with something in the Battlestar Galactica remake-space. Now, having made this decision it means I need to keep in mind that I might need to come up with reasons why all combat isn’t done with drones or why inertial dampers keep you on the deck unless the ship gets hit really hard.

Now I have a general idea of what kind of universe this is. Staying within those boundaries is going to inform all of my decisions going down the pike. Who leads away missions? What kinds of people would you choose to be in charge of a self-sufficient ship on a long exploration voyage? What has already been done? What do I want to feature? Well, to borrow from BSG again, I really enjoy themes of hard choices. That fits in nicely with the fact that I want there to be tension between exploration and safety. It’ll help inform me what my cast of characters is going to need to be like.

Speaking of characters, I need to do some real thinking on where they are from. I know I want there to be a healthy mix of genders and ethnicities without necessarily defining a character by their gender or ethnicity. I decide that a female captain of color would be good to have. Perhaps a first officer of Chinese descent. Likely both also have some mixed heritage, since this is the future and lots of people have had the opportunity to get space busy. So then what about aliens? Do I want humanoids or non-humanoids? How would that even work on a ship? What kind of inter-species dynamics might I want?

This could (and will) go on for pages and pages and pages. The idea here is that I figure out what I like and what I want to do. Then I figure out what I would change from my sources of inspiration, being mindful of why I want to do that and what purpose it serves. Everything in a story serves a purpose; knowing my purpose and why it is what it is gives me more control over my narrative and results in a tight, believable world with exciting characters and events that hopefully matter to my reader.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Drawing Through, Drawing In

M.A. Ray here. Good day to you!

Let’s talk filtering.

First, an explanation of what I mean by the word: filtering, to me, is a way to pull my writing through the sieve of a character’s mind. It has the effect of drawing the reader close to the character, and I use it almost all the time, whether the reader notices or not. Primarily, I do the trick using word choice and sentence structure, but in the beginning—and still, on occasion—I used grammar.

In Menyoral I spend the most time looking through one of two sets of eyes: Dingus Xavier’s or Sir Vandis Vail’s. There are plenty of more minor viewpoints (mainly Father Krakus’s and little Stas’s), but the biggest contrast is between Dingus and Vandis, so I’m going to talk about that a bit, and also how you can bring that to your own work.

To do this, to draw my reader right into a character’s headspace, requires intense focus for me. I need to be right in there with the character. Maybe it would be different for you, but sometimes I’m in so close I feel nauseated when they do; I’m feeling what they’d feel, thinking the way they’d think, and for me being briefly someone else is one of the biggest attractions of writing. Interpreting the actions of other characters, interpreting events, through the brain of the POV character, is a lot of fun, even when something bad is happening. Being close, as a writer, to your characters, makes these gymnastics easier.

The mechanics of it are pretty simple. For example, Vandis: formally educated, high position, money’s not a problem, but he came up in the boonies, and some of that still shows in his attitudes—and in my word choice when I write him. He’s got a large vocabulary and he’s not afraid to use it. His sentences are put together more properly. As a dash of flavor, when Vandis isn’t controlling his big mouth, he curses like a soldier. That mostly shows up in his dialogue or thought patterns, but sometimes, if I’m using his point of view, I’ll toss an f-bomb into the narration to give the sense that we’re really inside him.

On the other hand, I’ve got Dingus: no formal education except what Vandis has given, dirt-poor peasant from the hills. His vocabulary is growing, but he has a much poorer grasp on proper usage, and particularly in the first book, he uses double negatives and some constructions unique to the American South—even in the narrative. The more he hangs around Vandis, whom he idolizes, the closer his language comes to baseline, if slightly more profane. Maintaining the uniqueness of his voice has been a challenge, so I’ve turned to sensory inputs more and more when I write him. Dingus has enhanced senses. When he looks at something, he’s not only seeing it, the way I’d write for Vandis. Often I’ll use his sense of smell to bring myself into his head. Vandis will pick up a strong odor or aroma, but Dingus will scent more, and more often.

So here are my tips for writing a very close point of view.

Try to capture the rhythms of speech in the narrative you write, choosing words your character would use particularly. Pull your writing through the filters in his or her mind: what does he perceive about the situations, people, and places before him? What is most notable to him? What sense or senses does he rely on the most? Remember that background and backstory have a lot to do with perception—and misperception. What is the character used to seeing from others? What’s the first thing that leaps to his or her mind when presented with a certain situation?

What I’m getting at here is this: get into their heads. Know your people and live in their skins while you write. The more real they are to you, the more real you’ll be able to make them for your readers. And hey, share in the comments. If you give this a shot because of my article, let me know how it went; if you already do this, give your tips!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meet the Scriptors

It’s a brand new blog, but who the hell is this knaves' gallery of indie authors and ne'er-do-wells?

We thought we'd introduce ourselves this week, but rather than toot our own horns, we let our friends from The Scriptorium do it for us. Each person took a randomly-assigned name and wrote a little bit about the Scriptor to tell you about ...well, our writing. Here goes.

Fiona Skye (written by our treasured reader, Amanda Bonnett):

I haven’t known author Fiona Skye for long, but she’s whetted my appetite for more of her prose. Her sharp eye for character detail and the authenticity of her world enthrall me, bring her stories to life, and plop me down in the totally exciting realm she’s crafted. Her use of Nordic linguistics intermingles with her knack for well-rounded characters, and I’ve noticed her talent at filling her stories with just the right kinds of details—the outfit, tools, and weaponry her skillful killers employ fill me with a sense of what to expect, and her descriptions are beautifully-painted pictures of a savage, northern world. Fiona’s post days are always on my reading schedule.

S.J. Delos (written by M.A. Ray):

By day, S.J. Delos is a snarky accountant pushing numbers for The Man. By night, he pushes words into attractive configurations, writing kick-ass female protagonists in an urban fantasy setting. In the Scriptorium, we know to look out for Sidhe princesses who can't walk down the road without spraining something, teen werewolves riding Ducati motorcycles, and assassin vampires gone kinda straight (but not completely) in his fast-paced work inspired by action movies and the World of Darkness.

M.L. John (written by Casey Matthews):

Put a hundred writers into a room with M.L. John and she will make ninety of them jealous. I am one of the ninety. I’ve watched her rip my heart out in the space of two lines, then roll it in laughs and thump it back into my chest. One always has the sense, when sitting down to her stories, that she is at the other end of the keyboard, smirking, saying, “I am about to make you feel things.” And you never know precisely what they are going to be until they come at you. She brings her street urchin runaways and kick-ass swordswomen off the page, makes you fall in love with them, and then holds them hostage on a weekly basis. If you don’t want to feel things, if you don’t want to fall in love, if laughing and grinding your molars alike unnerve you, then stay far, far away from M.L. John.

M.A. Ray (written by M.L. John)

M.A. Ray is a soft-spoken barbarian queen who never needs to yell to make herself heard. She spends her days baking muffins for her family and her nights writing fantasy about knights and berserkers. Her work is rich and captivating, full of breathing characters and breath-taking world building. If she shows up at your house with a spear, I strongly suggest surrender.

Casey Matthews (written by S.J. Delos):

It’s not an easy thing to make characters exciting and interesting. Most of the time, the adventure supersedes depth. This is far from the case with the writings of Casey Matthews. Call him the lovechild of John Woo and Martin Scorsese with a pen. Casey’s tale of a monster from beyond time beautifully blends action and character development into a story that grabs the reader from the first scene and doesn’t let go until it reaches the end of each blockbuster chapter.

When he’s not carving words into detailed prose, Casey stalks the halls of academia and hangs his hat in the Washington, D.C. area with his wife.

Jen Ponce (written by Fiona Skye):

When she's not busy taking care of her kids or fighting for women's rights, urban fantasy author Jen Ponce is busy building dark, dangerous worlds, peopled with kick-ass magic-wielding heroines, floating heads, sentient spiders, and scary-but-still-lovable demons. With the combined skills of Simon R. Green and Neil Gaiman, Jen masterfully cooks up tales that will grab you and not let go until you've consumed the entire feast in one satisfying sitting. If you want an exciting, funny, thrilling tale, look no farther than Jen Ponce's work!

R.L. Wicke (written by Jen Ponce):

Author R. L. Wicke explores the fullness of life set against the compelling beauty of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Her writing is rich and filled with reverence for the characters who struggle and fight at the end of one world and the beginning of the next. Death throws life in sharp relief in her stories, giving the reader an appreciation of the magnificence of humankind in all its foibles and imperfections. When she's not weaving magic into words, she's fostering a love of learning and kindness in her children, loving and supporting her husband, and lifting up her fellow writers in a way that makes the rest of us blessed to know her.

Amanda Bonnett (written by R.L. Wicke):

A good reader is a writer’s best friend, and Amanda Bonnett is an invaluable friend to us all. Amanda reads everything from Chinese historical tales to urban fantasy and is looking to fill out her collections of Anne McCaffrey and Jim Butcher. Armed with her cheery disposition, boundless enthusiasm and encouragement, and a keen eye for detailed line edits, Amanda enjoys nothing more than sitting down with a printed-out manuscript and a red pen, wrapped in her Hufflepuff robe. She lives in the United States with her husband and hundreds of books.

Matt Green (written by Casey Matthews):

Matt Green is a talented architect of worlds, evoking sophisticated locales for his readers to discover. Whether science fiction, steampunk, or magitech, he lays the groundwork, and then follows through with a welcome talent for characterization. He populates his environs with bickering twin wizards, misfit ensembles, infatuated computer intelligences, and has a recurring focus on adventurous female protagonists. When he isn’t kicking the asses of Dark Lords and commas, Matt enjoys role-playing games and nerd culture, is employed in academia, and lives with his lovely fiancĂ©, Alice.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Praise of Rules

Do you write? Excellent! I do as well.

Now: Do you wish to get better at writing? Do you want people to adore the ink you spill? If not, then read no further. If you write only for yourself, only for release, then continue to do what you do. You lead a simple and pure existence, like that of a child belting out sounds for the sake of the sounds, and while someone may say something churlish to you someday, understand that—in reality—we are all just jealous that your love is purer than our love. So if that is you, then for the love of God, read no further.

But suppose that is not you. Suppose you have bitten into the sweet-smelling apple by sharing your work with another soul and suppose you wish to hold the fire in your mind against another’s brain—suppose you want to see those flames crackle and consume. If you want to produce in others the same patterns you have before your own eyes, then I have some sad news.

Eventually you must sit down and learn the rules.

You must learn grammar, all of it, every drop of it all the way down to the en dash and the em dash. You must make friends with semicolons and make your peace with the comma, you must know when to protect your punctuation with quotation marks—which will vary, depending on whether you are American or not. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you are not done learning.

You must write vast swaths of prose, all of it “show.” You must learn how to make rhythm with your sentences, yet not meander for marathon lengths. If you plunk all your words into your reader’s arms like one bag of groceries too many, they will begin to drop things. The eggs might break.

You must know how to start a novel—how to end one. Worst of all, you will have to write all the stuff between, and that is no picnic. You will probably have to do it more than once.

You will have to work until you have made all the mistakes, and then until you have unmade all of the mistakes. You will have to work until you notice whenever your fingers tik-tak the wrong marks down.

Why do you have to know all this? Why is writing not free anymore, why do you have to labor the fields, and why can’t you go back to the garden? Well, I’ll tell you a secret.

We are learning the rules so that we might break them. You see, when a child rebels, it is meaningless. Of course the child rebelled. The child knows nothing about the rules to start with. A true rebel is one who has the power to obey—and chooses not to. Disobey as a child and you will be laughed at. Disobey as one with knowledge and power, and only the fools will laugh.

We learn the rules so that we will know their power, know their purpose, and when they come so naturally to us that we have to think about breaking them—then it is time to break them.

I was always told by a certain set that art has no rules. This is a bold lie. Art is nothing but artifice, nothing but technique and mastery of technique. But a time comes when you realize the power behind the rules.

There are rules to everything—and rules are the things we must master in order to arrive at the place where there are no rules.