writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

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writing

An Exercise in Description

A couple of months ago (November, to be precise) I was invited to teach a mini-writing workshop for several middle school classes in one of the school districts near my home. I accepted readily; it offered a new challenge; I would gain local exposure (assuming that kids talked to their parents and teachers to each other); and perhaps most important, it would give me the chance to encourage and maybe inspire the next generation of writing talent.

I firmly believe that all children are, by nature, artists. They love to draw, paint, sing, and compose stories and poems. Sometime around the onset of puberty, this love of artistic expression goes away, whether because of time limits, distractions, or because they are told they are no good and even if they are, there is no way to make a living with their art. In short, they’re wasting they’re time.

I disagree. Obviously, I don’t think artistic pursuits are wastes of time.

So I devised my workshop to be encouraging what they are currently doing and, perhaps, give the students a hint at how to develop their craft.

The subject was writing description, because that is usually what the neophyte writer first attempts and so often gets wrong. I used the device of the senses as a way of crafting vibrant descriptions. All humans experience their universe through the various senses, so it can be a readily available common language.

In preparation, I made three lists of senses: the primary physical senses, secondary physical senses, and what I call the social senses.

For the first exercises, I gave the students the list of five physical senses:

Sight

Sound

Smell

Taste

Touch

Among most humans, sight is the strongest sense and that is usually reflected in description. Asked to describe a room, most people will describe what they see. That can seem cardboard and contrived. Which leads to exercise 1.

Exercise 1

Write a short paragraph—three or four sentences—describing a room, using at least three of the five primary senses.

Exercise 2

Write another short paragraph describing a room, but this time don’t use the sense of sight. How would a blind person experience the room?

After discussing the results of the first two exercises, I then introduced (by having them think of them) the secondary senses:

Pressure

Heat/cold

Where your body is (hands, feet, nose, etc.)

Pain

Illness/wellness

Balance

Hunger

Thirst

Fatigue/tiredness

Time

Direction

The students seemed to enjoy coming up with the list of senses as much as they did the writing. Next comes exercise 3.

Exercise 3

Write another short paragraph, but this time, use only one from the primary physical senses and two from the list of secondary senses.

Finally I introduced the list of what I call social senses:

Belonging/alienation

Danger/safety

Value/pride

Happiness/sadness

Being watched

Déjà vu

Curiosity

Attraction/revulsion

Envy/jealousy

Fairness/justice

Excitement

Exercise 4

Write another short paragraph describing a place or situation, but use a sense from all three categories to describe it.

The whole point of these exercises was to get the students to think outside the zones they were used to thinking in. From their reactions and the paragraphs they wrote, it seemed to work. They were suddenly thinking in ways they hadn’t tried before.

And to all those who tell us that young people today are not interested in learning, or working to improve their skills, I can tell you every student wrote in my workshops and most shared their efforts with the rest of the class. I was impressed and pleased.

Whether I encouraged any of them to continue writing is a different story, one whose ending has not yet been determined.

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writing, Writing advice

The First Two Pages

Most editors, publishers, and agents have a dirty little secret every writer should know. (They don’t always read your entire submission.) They do if it’s good, of course. They probably do when it’s borderline good, but that is questionable. I have it on good authority (a highly placed source) that most editors make their preliminary decision on whether to accept a piece or not before they finish the second page.

In other words, if you don’t impress them within the first two pages, you’ve probably missed your chance. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your climax and resolution are if the person reading it doesn’t ever get that far.

Okay. So how do we do that? How do we keep our works from ending up in the reject pile?

By making the first two pages so good they compel the reader to continue.

First, we need to make our opening line exemplary. It has to be better than good. It has to be the bait that draws the reader in and then sets the hook without missing. Ever. It needs to be as close to perfect as possible. It needs to be as perfect as we can make it.

The first line can set the piece’s mood, introduce the main character, the setting, the conflict and the author’s major and minor themes. But it must do all this heavy lifting with the grace and beauty we strive for in our prose. The only way we can accomplish this is through the age-old method of re-writing and revision.

It is said (by Diogenes Laertius, actually) that the Greek philosopher Plato re-wrote the opening sentence of his masterpiece The Republic some twenty times. That was just the opening line. Nobody, from the most amateur among us to the most accomplished professional or lauded author of classical literature, creates art the first time she puts pen on paper. The true mark of the professional is the willingness to do that heartrending work of re-writing and trying to create the perfect first line. Thus Paul Gallico’s famous quotation on writing: “…sit at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.”

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

The second measure we need to take to make our first two pages as good as possible, is to make sure we begin our action in what the literary critics call in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things.”) The days of a gradual build up to the action are long gone (Dickens hasn’t had a new story published in years). These days, readers (and the editors who cater to them) want everything to start NOW. If yours is a murder mystery tale, the murder needs to take place immediately, not fifty pages into the novel.

Now that isn’t saying we now can, or should, ignore the classic pyramid structure of fiction, or discard the idea of a beginning, middle, and end to a story. They are “classic” because the ideas are valid and effective; we can’t afford to ignore them.

What we can do is use the classic ideas more creatively. Perhaps we can use the beginning, middle and end in a different way, such as Edgar Allan Poe did in the beginning of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

Edgar Allan Poe was a master and what he did in this story was condense the first two parts of the story into the opening. By paragraph four, we are into the climax of the story and the rest is how the climax is achieved. There is nothing in the rule that says we need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that says they all need to be the same size or of any particular size relative to each other. The beginning could be one sentence, or most of the story. The ending could be the majority of the tale as in Poe’s work, or it could be one final word.

There is also nothing to say that the parts need to be in any particular order. The beginning does not have to precede the middle, which does not have to precede the end. We can be creative. We can begin with the middle and fill in the beginning with flashbacks.

Whatever we decide to do, we must remember that the goal is to create a work in which the first two pages are so dramatic, so compelling, the reader has no choice but to continue with the rest of the story. This is important in a general way (we all want our readers to read our work, after all) but it is crucial when presented to an editor or agent.

The editor is presented with many more works than they have room to publish. We must give them absolutely no reason to set our work aside. That means creating the best first line and most interesting first pages they have ever seen.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Dreaded “Talking Heads Syndrome”

One of my biggest pet peeves, especially when it comes to the art and craft of writing fiction, is what is called: “Talking Heads Syndrome.” While we often see this among the many mistakes beginning writers make, it seems to be even more prevalent in writers who have reached an intermediate skill level: that is, they have a pretty good grasp of many of the skills they need, but have not yet mastered them.

Most of us (including me) fall into this category.

So what is “Talking Heads Syndrome?” (No, it has nothing to do with the Sunday morning talk shows, or the new wave band). “Talking Heads Syndrome” refers to an otherwise fairly well-written scene (dialogue, characterization, mechanics, etc.) but in which the characters don’t seem to be anchored to the physical world. The characters seem to be nothing but heads floating somewhere in the ether.

An example, a fellow writer in one of my critique groups wrote a scene for a mystery story in which a detective is arguing with her boss. Though somewhat trite, the dialogue was realistic and believable, but there was virtually no description of their surroundings, no description of how the characters react to their environment.

It was supposed to take place in the police Captain’s office, but it could just as easily have happened on the bridge of a fishing boat, the headquarters of a military base, or on a space station. To be most effective, every scene must have a sense of inevitability. It must give the reader the feeling that the scene is the only thing that could have happened with those particular characters, at that particular time, in that particular place.

Think of the best novels and short stories. None of them would be the same story or, arguably, as good in any other location. Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t be the same on the Danube; The Great Gatsby wouldn’t be as good set in Des Moines; Wuthering Heights is not the same novel set in South Africa.

If you can easily shift a scene to a completely different setting without having to completely change the scene, you may have “Talking Heads Syndrome.”

Okay, you think you might have “Talking Heads Syndrome.” Now what? How do you fix it?

My suggestion is that you use psychology.

How do psychologists explain how all of us relate to our environment? They use three terms that I think pretty much cover it. They are:

Proprioception The ability to sense the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and the amount of effort involved in moving. (For example: the universal question of what do I do with my hands?)

Exteroception The ability to perceive the outside world around us. (Involves traditional senses: what the character sees, smells, tastes, hears, and feels.)

Interoception The ability to sense internal stimuli: pain, hunger, fatigue. (For example: the detective has an ulcer, which is flaring up because of the argument with his boss.)

The secret to curing “Talking Head Syndrome” is to take these three principles of perception into account as you imagine and then render your scene. If necessary draw a map of the location and block out the character’s movements just as a director would a stage play. Get deep into the mind of each of the characters, know what they’re feeling, their aches and pains, their hopes and secret fears. Each of them will have an emotional opinion of every location they frequent, from their office, to their home, favorite hangout, and the grocery where they buy their food.

Another idea, one I’ve used a few times, is to write up a detailed sketch of each location in your work. Use as much sensory detail as you can, not just what can be seen, but what the place sounds and smells like, how it feels. Then add a few thoughts about how each of the characters feels about it (because the odds are good they won’t feel exactly the same. Different things bother different people). This way you have a ready reference to consult. It also avoids embarrassing mistakes like saying a house is wooden in one part of a novel and brick in another.

The true secret to avoiding “Talking Heads Syndrome” is to completely immerse yourself in the world of your characters and using the knowledge gained there to describe it to your reader. Knowing how much and what to tell your reader? Well, that’s why they call it art.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing a Successful Sex Scene

Sooner or later, it seems, if you’re writing adult fiction in almost any genre, there will come a point where the story calls for a sex scene of some sort. If you’re writing something having to do with shades of various colors, that point will come quicker and more often. I have faced the dilemma myself with varying degrees of success.

Writing sex is some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Sex is one those issues in Western culture in which there seems to be little middle ground, yet we’re so conflicted emotionally about it, we tie ourselves in intellectual knots. It’s dangerous. The mere mention of genitalia will lose you an entire segment of society. Describe it with vulgar, or street terms and many will walk away from your work without a second thought. Even if it is in character. Yet others will applaud you for your honest characterization.

What some will praise as “torrid” or “erotic,” others will condemn as “pornographic” and “obscene.” So tread carefully. Know your genre and know your audience. Certain genres simply will not tolerate graphic sex in any form. Some even frown on the mention of certain anatomical parts.

When you do decide that depiction of a sex act is appropriate for your story, you have to get down to the mechanics of writing a memorable scene. And that is difficult.

In my opinion, the biggest pitfall most writers face is the temptation to spend their time and energy on rendering the mechanics of the physical act. After all, it is a physical act, isn’t it? The problem with this is pretty much everyone over the age of twelve is familiar with how the process works. Showing the reader how it works again on the page of your short story or novel will risk appearing either monotonous or sophomoric. Neither of which (I assume) is the effect we’re shooting for.

The solution to this problem? A bicycle ride.

Yep. A bicycle ride.

Consider, if you will, your main character rides her bicycle the ten blocks from her home to work every day (she’s environmentally conscientious, or maybe just poor). Do you describe the mechanics of riding the bike? Do you show her pressing down on each pedal with her feet and legs to propel herself? Do you describe how she minutely adjusts her body weight to maintain balance? How she steers? Brakes? Shifts gears? Probably not. Your audience already knows how to operate a bicycle. Telling them again is wasting their time.

Unless something unusual were to happen (like having to dodge a car) your depiction of the bike ride would only have the barest details of the bicycle’s operation, just enough to occasionally remind the reader that your character is riding a bike. Instead, your scene would consist largely of how the character feels (is it sunny and warm, a pleasant ride, or cold and windy?), what she’s thinking about, what she sees and hears along her journey, how her body responds to the exercise.

Now if she takes the ride with her romantic partner, you would describe their relative positions as they ride, but still concentrate on the sights, feelings and desires of your character. Much of them would now just be related to her companion.

The same rules apply to writing sex. Concentrate less on the mechanics (unless something unusual happens like, say, falling out of bed) and more on the emotions involved. That will go a long way toward making it a successful scene. There’s an unwritten rule in horror fiction that says “do not describe the monster. The reader will imagine worse than you could possibly describe.” I’d posit the opposite for sex scenes. We, as writers cannot describe anything as beautiful and erotic as our readers can imagine, so maybe we shouldn’t do more than point them in the right direction. After all, the most important sexual organ in the human being is the imagination. Use that to make your scenes work for everyone.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Building Believable Characters

Character matters.

While this is true in “real” life, it is even more essential in our fiction. Even the most plot-driven techno-thriller or sci-fi adventure will not work unless it centers around realistic, well-rounded, and believable characters. This is because we humans are social creatures. We naturally bond with other humans, empathize with their struggles and triumphs.

But that is only if the reader can believe the characters you’ve created are real. If they don’t believe in your characters, they won’t believe the rest of the story.

Almost nothing kills a story quicker than two-dimensional characters: good guys who are like saints, bad guys who are Satan personified, or characters who are so cliched as to be straight from central casting. Real human beings are extremely complex creatures and each of us is an individual. There are no good guys who are completely good, or bad guys with no redeeming qualities. As the saying goes: even Hitler loved his dog.

So how do we go about building a believable, well-rounded character? The same way we go about recreating a historical period, or place, or the life of a Scotland Yard detective or ER nurse: by doing research. We need to accumulate all the facts we can find about a character and use a selected few of them to build the illusion of a real person. Just like when we research the Gettysburg battlefield, we might not use every little detail, but all those details form a background we use as we create a coherent, believable character.

There are several tools available to help accumulate details about your character. Most of them are in the form of questionnaires that go into various degrees of detail. You can find them on the web with a simple Google search. I have tried a couple of these, but sometimes find they seem to go into too much detail. Do I need to know my character’s favorite color? Maybe. Do I need to know what happened to her in her seventh grade social studies class? Again, I don’t know. I might, but it seems like I’m expending a great deal of energy creating a dossier of facts I might never use.

I prefer to building my characters as the story demands it. For example, the lead character meets an attractive woman and considers asking her out. Does he? If he doesn’t, why not? What incident in his past leads him to make the decision? I will answer that question when it comes up. And his response to the result of that decision informs his next decision. It’s how real life works, so it feels real.

Granted, I don’t create the character out of nowhere when I begin the story. I generally already have created the broad strokes of the character before I write a word. I have a broad foundation to begin with and add on to that as the story requires. These are the items I have in my character’s foundation before I begin the story:

Physical description. I always know (at least in general terms) what my character’s look like, though I seldom describe my characters unless it is germane to the story. However, if my character is unusually tall, or short, or has some feature they are particularly self-conscious about, it will influence how they interact with others and the world around them.

Education. While educational level isn’t the absolute about world view, it can indicate a great deal. Odds are a woman who dropped out of school in the tenth grade will have a much different view of the world than the one with a doctorate in microbiology. They will react differently to adversity. They will speak differently. They will likely be entirely different.

Occupation. Again, a character’s occupation has a great deal to do with how they approach the world around them and how they react to it. To continue with the example above, a waitress at a greasy spoon diner would probably have certain real world or street smarts a medical researcher wouldn’t.

Family. As much an influence as education and occupation; it’s where we all learn to properly interact with others—or not. Are the character’s parents alive? Siblings? What was family life like as the character grew up? If still alive, what is the character’s relationship like with her family? Are they close? Barely speaking? Some, but not others? Are they married? Divorced? Children?

There are other things I sometimes consider (such as where the character is from, if different from the story’s location) but the four items above form the foundation of all my characters. Everything else is a detail that can just be added to the foundation, another layer, if you will.

And always remember that none of us are perfect. Not you, not me, not the person sitting behind you in the coffee shop, not the Queen of England. Your characters shouldn’t be either. It’s our fears and flaws and how often we overcome them that makes humanity interesting and beautiful. The same should be true for our characters.

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writing

Writing “Literary” vs “Genre” Fiction

I freely confess; I mostly write genre fiction.

There is a little confusion about the difference between “literary” or “serious” fiction and “genre” or commercial fiction. A good rule of thumb goes like this: serious fiction is all about the writing technique itself, while in genre or commercial fiction the plot or characters are the most important.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he tells an anecdote of his days in a college fiction writing class. In short, he’d written a story for the class, but received a failing grade from the instructor, who’d commented on the work that it was “pulp garbage.” (Well, Stephen King wrote it). When Mr. King argued on the merits of the writing, the instructor wouldn’t budge, declaring “this kind of pulp garbage has no place in this class.” Stephen subsequently sold the story to a magazine and brought the check in to show the instructor, who told him that it didn’t matter if he’d sold it for a million dollars, it was still pulp garbage.

I believe Mr. King stopped taking college-level writing classes after that.

He’d encountered literary snobbishness but was strong enough and confidant enough to walk away.

I encountered a similar mindset when I was young and taking the University writing classes. We were all reading and studying literature in our other classes. The unspoken rule was that we were learning to create literature. We were to be experimental, avant-garde. We were the new generation, training to advance the art form.

I bought into it too. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I wanted to be the new literary wunderkind.

Which is fine, in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal and as far as literary goals go, the Nobel Prize is about as good as it gets. The problem is in choosing the road you must travel to reach that goal.

See, the problem is that outside the ivy-covered walls of the University is a real world and the rules in the real world don’t always mirror the rules in the University. And one of the first rules you learn in the real world is that outside of the University communities, almost no one reads “literary” or “serious” fiction. Since no one reads it, almost no one will publish it.

For those who dreamed of making a living writing fiction, writing experimental fiction doesn’t seem the most favorable path. If you want to make money writing fiction, it’s going to have to be commercial. It’s going to have to be genre.

Another factor in my decision to concentrate my efforts on genre writing was (of all things) a passage in one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee detective novels. In this passage, Travis is talking with another character, an aspiring young artist. She asks him what he thinks of her work, an abstract expressionist painting. He looks it over, then asks her to do him a favor and sketch a nearby lamp. When she couldn’t do it, he advises her that before you can successfully experiment in your art form, you have to master the fundamentals.

That statement resonated for me. Before we can push the boundaries of our chosen art, we must master the fundamentals. In my mind, as a fiction writer, that means mastering plot, characterization, pace and all the other details of successful fiction.

And the final nail in the literary snobs’ metaphorical coffin is the realization that most of the literary greats we students were to emulate did not write their works thinking that people would consider them the height of literary art. Most wrote them hoping to entertain their readers, express themselves, and maybe make a buck (or farthing, drachma, whatever). Even Shakespeare, probably the paragon of English language literature, wrote his plays not so he’d be admired by future generations, but because he wanted to sell theater tickets right then. It was a business.

So the next time someone looks down their nose at me for writing commercial fiction, maybe I’ll hand them a pen and paper and ask them to describe a lamp.

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