Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From Everywhere and Plot Soup

Every time I’ve attended a session where an author opens the floor to questions from the public, someone inevitably raises there hand and asks “Where do you get your ideas?” These few words almost always produce a pained look on the author’s face, and even I have learned to cringe. Sometimes the author laughs it off, but when pressed to answer, she typically says, “Everywhere.” This answer rarely satisfies, despite its validity, and the author knows this, but how else can she answer and still have time to address other questions?

Defining an author as someone who has at least one published book and a writer as someone who has completed a manuscript but has not been published, I can only attest to the truth of the statement of ‘everywhere’ as a writer. Everything a writer/author sees, reads, and hears and everyone she meets gets thrown into the plot soup in the back of her head. Since that is such an unsatisfying answer, I’ll give you some examples of ‘everything/everywhere’ from the last couple days.

--My office was broken into over the weekend. While this is a distressing event, the writer part of me noted several things in an almost detached way throughout the cops arriving and doing their thing. Two big details that stuck with me: the CSI wearing bright purple gloves and the fact we had to clean up the fingerprint dust after they left. I tossed these details into the plot soup.

--Last night, when my family gathered for our weekly dinner, we were talking and my brother jokingly said, “You mean there were girls before highschool?” Definite plot soup material.

--Yesterday one of the grad students was in the hospital. Today he is out, smiling and exuberant. When asked about it, he says he has a prominent ‘dumb gene’. I think it’s more an excessive sense of adventure, but boy is he interesting—into the plot soup he goes.

--I was recently introduced to the music of Kerli, a young singer about to release her debut album. Her voice it dark and haunting, and the video for Walking on Air is very shiny. The emotions her music evokes in me? Tossed right into the plot soup.

--Sunday morning my Labrador chased off a coyote, and I dashed after him, trying to call him back. Oh yeah, and I was barefoot in a cloud robe. Plot soup.

--A friend sent me an article the other day about feet washing up on a Canadian shore. No other body parts, just feet. Weird. Plot soup.

I could go on, but these are a good sampling of the random tidbits from the last three days. They are all just little bits of this and that collected and stored away for later use. Everyday writers collect things that are tossed into the plot soup. There they simmer, mix, and change. When she needs an idea, a scene, a plot, a detail, or a character trait, she calls on that plot soup, dips in her ladle and pulls out what she needs. It probably no longer resembles what it went in as, and she shapes it to her needs, so the idea really is a product of everything encountered.

What tidbits have you added to your plot soup recently?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is it rebellion? Or innovation?

Writing. Is a way of communication when it comes down to it. I write because I want to make a link between the reader and myself. And there are rules to writing, I've found. Rules of punctuation and paragraph formation; rules of capitalization of sequence. Even rules of conflict type and progression.

I find the rules invasive. They invade my creative space and force me to live in a tiny box. They take away my breath.

And then I remember those crazy, 20th century, modern literature authors. Julio Cortázar, Edward Albee; the Dadaists, the Absurdists. Those folks broke rules right and left. Punctuation? Who needs it! Formal structure? Bah!

They pushed the envelope, and explored the strange vistas far beyond the norm. They innovated. They demonstrated the sometimes ignored aspect of writing that is art, and they made a visceral connection to their readers.

I'm not saying that writers don't need to learn the rules of their trade. But. Sometimes you need to put the rules in the closet, ignore their plaintive cries, and see what curious fruit can be cultivated in their absence.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tie It Up, Duct Tape It's Mouth, and Toss It In the Corner

Let’s sit down and be honest about this. Writing is hard and sometimes the people around you can make it even harder. When people you love and trust are negative, doubt can seep into your soul and you speculate about your abilities. “Am I good enough?” you ask and you hear the answer in your head. It comes in the form of your loved one’s voice and it says that you’re not.

You can’t let this stop you from writing. Trust me I know this to be true.

I have one relative that turns me into a flaming pillar of doubt. Unfortunately, this ability is not a newly acquired talent nor is it limited to my writing ability. Suffice it to say, I have never been nor will I ever be good enough. AT. ANYTHING.

In most situations, I can blow off a little negativity, but when it comes to writing, it is harder for me to do that.

Here are some tips that I have found to be especially helpful.

Surround yourself with other creative people. Join a writers group or find a critique partner. It is easier to believe in yourself when you see other people experiencing the same things you are. Other people’s unbiased opinions can take the sting out of your loved one’s negative views.

Learn to separate a personal attack from constructive criticism. It has taken me years to learn how to do this. The critiques that I get from my writers groups are offering opinions and advice on my work would be considered constructive criticism. These words provide you with an opportunity to improve your story. A loved one saying “I thought you could write” is a personal attack. Learning the difference has helped me focus on improvement rather than self-doubt.

Write what you love. Passion is the engine that powers you past the self-doubt generated by the negativity. If you want to write children’s fiction, you probably won’t be happy writing adult literary fiction. Loving what you write will keep you going even in the tough times.

Write for yourself. All of us dream of being published. I want to go to a bookstore and see my work in print, but even if that never happens, I will keep writing because when my writing is going well, it makes me happy. I’m not me without writing.

The most important tip is to keep writing. When the voice in your head tells you that you’re not good enough, tie it up, duct tape its mouth, and toss it in the corner. It can stay there until you’re published.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pass the Plot 2, Scene 3

Once in the shelter of the heavy limbed trees, all three dwarves breathed deeper. Inside the forest they were a lot safer than outside of the forest. The queen had a horrible allergy to all deciduous pollens and so avoided trees in specific and forests in general. Even her huntsmen were forbidden to enter on pain of having half of their heads shaved. Many of them abandoned the hunting, rather than be forced to wait on the edges of the trees for deer to come out; they felt it was unmanly, so they took up the cultivation of bonsai trees instead.

The dwarves arrived in safety to the entrance of the mines. It was the end of the day shift, and the evening shift had yet to begin, so they felt sure that they could move their burden without being noticed by anything other than the curious squirrels and birds. Doc led the way with a lantern, and Sleepy and Sneezy carried the box, trying not to stumble on the rock covered path.

When they reached their destination, an abandoned tunnel that had yielded much less ore than expected, they put the box, unopened, into one of the dark corners.

"I'll make sure that the tunnel leading here gets blocked off as soon as possible," said Doc. "I think they're scheduled to put in reinforcement pillars and then fill in the neck passage in the next couple of days, but the foreman owes me a favor. Maybe I can even get it done tonight."

"I've never seen the mirror." Sleepy cast a longing glance at the box.

"It's nothing to see. Just a big mirror with a big mouth." Doc waved his torch around. "Come on, let's get out of here before someone sees us."

"I haven't seen the mirror either, Sleepy. But I don't want to." Sneezy's allergies had cleared up once they got into the mine proper. Something about being in the tunnels did wonders for his histamine levels, and it certainly didn't hurt that cats were never in the mine tunnels. Ever.

"Come on, the both of you." Doc headed towards the main tunnel and the other two followed him. Sleepy was the last to exit the dusty tunnel, and he gave the box one more long look before following the light.

The three waited with the wagon until the night shift began to trickle in, and then Doc pulled the foreman aside and made his request, trying to be nonchalant.

"Look, I'd like to help you out, Doc, I really would. But I need all the hands I can get to make sure the new tunnel is stable and safe to work. No one goes back into that old tunnel anymore, so unless you want to get more specific on the potential danger of leaving it until the morning, that'll be the earliest I can get to it. And even then it'll shave off production."

Sneezy and Sleepy could tell that Doc was having trouble deciding which way to go. The less people who knew about the mirror was the better, and who could tell which dwarf belonged to the queen and which didn't.

"Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it," mumbled Sneezy under his breath.

"You sound like a broken record." But the way that Sleepy said it took any possible sting out. 7 dwarves in one 3 bedroom house made for either a large amount of tolerance, or a large amount of violence, and in the 12 years the 7 had been together, no one had yet to go to the hospital. "I really wish I could see the mirror. Just a quick..."

"It should be alright. It's not as if I could have told him the entire story. Shoot, I really don't like all this prophecy business." Doc swung himself back onto the driver's seat and clucked to the horse. "I'll be glad when all this is done."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Finding Purpose

Cliches drive me nuts. I've been in what seems a constant struggle since I entered highschool to find my "place" in the world and the response I heard most often is "You can be whatever you want to be!" When I was young, I wanted to be a gymnast, but I'm 5'9" and not athletic, so that's shot. Having a modicum of brain power didn't help because then it became "You can be somebody great!" I'm a secretary and a gradschool washout. Then I hit the workforce after college and it was "I don't care who you are, tell me what you can do." I never tell them I can do data entry but I still end up with it. The problem with all these sentiments is that they offer only a drop or two of truth and even less help. None is true enough to base a life on.

Writers face the same kinds of aphorisms from well meaning friends, family members, and even fellow writers. We hear "Write whatever you want to." Well, what if I don't know what that is? Or then there's the statement, well-beloved of highschool English teachers, "Write what you know." What I know is pretty dull, actually. Both of these statements do the same thing as the career goal cliches, they offer little help in discovering a writer's focus. We have a lot to do to discover our writing identity -- developing style and craft, determining whether we are pantsers or plotters, when/where/how we write best, who our audience is, etc. The most important question a writer needs to answer is "Why do I write at all?"

We can find the answer to the latter in some of the same ways that we discover life purpose -- by asking more of the right questions. An Aussie pastor I listen to gave a list of questions we should ask ourselves to help us see purpose in our lives. I found the list helpful in discovering some of my motivations to write and some directions to take my characters and plots.

1. What is my deepest desire? The obvious answer for a writer is to write best-selling books, right? That isn't helpful, though. Separate the act or career of writing from your desires and see what's left. Do you want justice? True love? Hope in the face of despair? All of these are traits to give your characters. If they want what you want, you can infuse their story with your own heart and make them real (Just don't give them what they want too early or you'll lose your audience).

2. What makes me angry or what makes me cry? This question helped me, because producing conflict in my stories is difficult for me. I don't want to go there in real life, so why would I want to put my characters through it? But harnessing my emotions will help me write better conflict. I can let my characters can get just as angry as I get at social injustice or when someone shames a friend or when they feel betrayed.

3. What flows naturally out of me? I think the cliche of "write what you know" came out of this idea that we should write what comes naturally. If short stories come easily for you and you could never consider writing anything longer than 15,000 words, then don't feel bad if you don't write a novel. If horror doesn't come easily, then don't write it.

5. What thoughts, visions or dreams do I find impossible to shake off? This is the big question for a writer, because we deal in the currency of visions. If you find yourself living in a story, a character, even a single image, write it.

6. To what can I give 100% of myself? If you're not going to give your whole self to a written work, then you'll never finish. It's just that simple.

I have to answer all of these questions for myself, and I feel like I am just at the beginning. But, like most areas of life, the answers come in the process and the direction comes in the moving. I have a card on my bulletin board at work that a writer friend sent me. It says "We write to discover what we believe." I write to discover who I am.