Speculation

Speculation. Why do we speculate? Why do we wonder?

There was a time and place in history when it was believed the sun was a fiery chariot. If the chariot was driven too close to the earth, the earth would be scorched by the flames and be barren. Alternately, if the horses of the sun chariot pulled too hard on the reins and veered off course, the earth would be plunged into frozen desperation. It took a god to drive the chariot along the middle path of the heavens.

But, the stars are not made of fire. Fire is an oxidation process, a chemical process. Three elements are needed for fire to happen: oxygen, heat and fuel. Without one of these ingredients a fire cannot start or continue.

Stars are massive, luminous balls of plasma held together by their own gravity. For most of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion in its core which releases energy that traverses the star’s interior and then radiates into outer space.

Almost all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were created by fusion processes in stars. Which means the stuff we are made of originated in the stars. But it took several millennia of questioning thought, testing, and speculation to come to this hypothesis.

We are a species of scientists and artists. We are dreamers. We speculate, imagine, brain storm, play, experiment, and problem solve. We are constantly curious and questing. We are constantly seeking the truth, but the truth is a slippery chameleon that changes with the environment. As new understandings arise they change the complexion of the truth. We must be ever curious and questing. We must be looking for the universal truth that will touch souls now and in the future. We must search out the theory that will revolutionize thought and move humanity’s collective understanding forward. We must remember once upon a time the sun was a fiery chariot and we still have not successfully managed to replicate the cold fusion of the stars.

The interests of this blog, my diary, lie in what is, what could be, what will never be except in the imagination, and what might be if the frame of reference is shifted a wee bit. I like to explore ways to nudge the point of view, the reference. I enjoy devious questions. Like, why? And, what if?

I will post my thoughts on writing, creating artwork, developing a creative habit, techniques to develop creativity, interesting information that I encounter in my wayfaring travels over the landscape of the internet, my adventures in trying to make money doing creative endeavors, and whatever else strikes my fancy because far flung ideas, images, and information combined together can lead to innovation.

 

 

How to Be a Better Writer

 

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Write write write write write!

Seriously, the only way to get better is to practice. I have been reviewing all of my old blogger blogposts. I have been editing them and transporting them into this website. Some of my posts from 5 years ago make me cringe, but now I know how to edit. I also have more of a sense of writing for others and some of the posts are just being deleted.

In addition to just getting better at writing by writing more, it becomes easier. If you show up every day, the muse knows where to find you. I think Stephen King might be the one who said that. This morning I was listening to an Open Book podcast featuring Nick Harkaway. He talked about being the son of writer and so he knew it was just a job. He knew that you got up in the morning and started writing. No mystery about it. Editors and publishers love him because he gets the job done. He is not waiting for mystical intervention, the right mood, inspiration, or any other hooey. He is just doing the job.

So to start to be a better writer– write!

Maybe Things Are More Complicated: The Complicated Villain


I am currently working on a novel outline for a book about angels, demons, and a psychic. A string of mysterious deaths occurs, the psychic is pulled into the homicides, and there is supernatural agency at work.

I am working on laying out cause and effect streams for all the major characters and seeing how the threads interact. This has lead me to thinking about ambiguity in fiction, villains, and portraying character.

I have written about villains in the past in a post titled “The Best Types of Villains.” I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in that post. I discussed various types of villains such as the inexplicably evil villain, the type of villain who manipulates situations, men portrayed as villains because history is defined by the conquerers, the out of control child villain, and the sociopathic villain who spreads his doctrine to others.

Villains are much better when they are portrayed with depth. This brings in ambiguity. For instance, if a character is just simply someone who vandalizes for the sake of destruction and the reasons for their destroying things is never explained this is a type of inexplicably evil villain. Perhaps the character puts caltrops on the road because it makes them smile to see people’s tires blown out. The sheriff’s deputy who has just been hired is put in charge of tracking down the one planting the caltrops. This is not a very compelling story.

Yesterday I was in a group of folk, some of whom have done street art and some taggers. In the past I created public chalk murals with the intent of spurring thought and discussion. I don’t entirely understand tagging– spray painting one’s symbol or tag. To me the tagging doesn’t inspire thought in anyone else or serve anyone other than the tagger. I was asking why someone would tag and continue to tag to the point of it being a felony charge. I could understand the thrill the tagger might get from doing something against authority, surreptitiously defacing property in plain sight, and having a level of notoriety swirling around them, but ultimately what they are doing holds little ambiguity.

So, let’s change these stories slightly. What if the person planting caltrops is trying to prevent the sometimes legal and sometimes illegal deforesting of old growth forests? The caltrops are still against the law but perhaps so is the felling of some of the trees. Who is the villain? In the situation with the tagger, what if the the story were set in a police state where people were oppressed and each incidence of tagging gave the populace hope? Who is the villain?

The story of each character always has its own unique perspective. The determination of who is the villain might be subtle and the character of the characters has to come through via showing and not telling.

Here is a scene portrayal. I hope it holds ambiguity and relays what I am talking about.

The male character sighs and shakes his head. He says, “I can never count on you for support. I just wanted a relaxing conversation. A little distraction. Some time away from everything. I am so stressed out. I really wish I could count on you, but you always just think of yourself and what you want. You don’t really care about me.”

The female character, crying, says, “I do care about you. A great deal. I am trying. It’s just your dream. The dream you just told me. Why did you tell me about it?”

“What about it? It was just a dream,” male character says.

“But you said it was about having a love affair and then breaking off with the woman. Why did you bring it up?”

“See. You don’t care about me. You don’t care about that I am sick and stressed and have a stressful day tomorrow. You bring this up to talk about when it is late. And you know how hard it is for me to talk about my dreams and such. This is all about you. About what you want. You want to be in a relationship but you don’t care about me. Just don’t care. And I cannot count on you,” says the male character.

Who is the villain? The woman who is asking about the dream the man has just told her that is about a love affair being broken off? Or the man who is condemning the woman for reacting to the dream he has chosen to tell her about when it is late, he is stressed, and he is feeling sick?

Villains can be the same stuff of heroes, it is just a matter of perspective. A man can be creative, brilliant, well-educated, working in a field for the common good, and articulate and at the same time manipulative and selfish. He can believe he is virtuous all the while he is making decisions and hurting those around him. He might do this while feeling justified or placing the blame elsewhere. The downfall of a human being is rarely so clearcut as to be a simple decision on the part of a person to be “bad.” The nature of a situation or the stated character does not make someone exempt.

If an angel allows the murder of four girls by a priest and tries to put the blame on another innocent person, are they virtuous just because they are an angel?

If a demon tries to prevent harm to a human, are they still evil? What if it is so the demon can possess the human? What if it is so the human won’t be damned? Is the demon truly evil no matter what?

People are complicated. Situations and motivations can be complicated. The cancer patient may seemingly evoke sympathy, but what if he is ultimately merely manipulative and just happens to have cancer? (As in the television show “Breaking Bad.”) The widowed mother who needs to support her children may evoke sympathy even as she sells marijuana, but what if she has always been a selfish, wild-child? (As in the television show “Weeds.”)Villains whose actions and motivations are ambiguous help us to explore our dark side. They help us to learn and see the everyday situations that might arise to cause a person to make less than virtuous decisions. Fully fleshed out villains are always ambiguous and more interesting.

Character Driven Improv-Plot OR Pre-Plotted Thematic Story? Which to Use?

This morning as I have been reading The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells and drinking coffee, I have been thinking about plot. I think there are a few ways to approach plot and I think for each individual writer they have to find what works for them. This might be why writing advice books are not always the most useful of things.

Let me state up front that plotting stories is not always my strong suit. And because of this I have been putting a fair amount of mental effort into thinking on what creates really good stories and good plots. To my mind there are two basic approaches to creating a story arc or plot. One is to create a character or two and plunk them into a situation and see what happens. In this approach the characters take over and as long as the author can maintain a sense of emotional honesty and integrity about who the characters are and how they would respond, the story does not lose focus with divided points of view. The main character remains the main character because the whole story comes from this character’s reactions.

Another way to create plot would be to take a story idea, create a situation, think through what the author wants to say, and create a character to enact the story. This type of plotting and preplanning can create a story where the author knows ahead of time what the ending will be and where the story is headed and thus avoids the pitfall of not knowing how to end the story. This type of story can be tough though because the characters still need to be thought through and complete. Anything less will lack authenticity.

 

Sunday Writing Discussions #16: Action Steps to be a Better Writer

To write is a verb. It is something that a writer does. There are no magic manuscript fairies that live in the walls, come out when the writer dreams, and ooze their blue-black blood onto the page. No computer daemons that compose while the computer is powered down.

I have been spending a great deal of time and energy thinking about plot and structure and ways to approach the way that I write to improve my writing. To think is also a verb and for me analyzing and thinking about a piece before I write it is a necessary step in the creation of a work. But inevitably my roundus tuckus needs to be settled into my chair and I need to feel the ever so slight pressure of the keys of my mac under my fingertips.

Knowing myself and the way that I approach writing this is useful for me.

Today, I was thinking about additional active steps that I could take to improve my writing and what advice I would pass on to other people who want to write. Since you have drunk the sweet wine, enjoy the addictive thrill of writing, and have stopped by my blog for a bit of a pick-me-up, I will share what advice I have for you that I am doing myself:

1. Do it. Write. Find ways to sneak writing in at every opportunity. Write prose poems for facebook posts. Write small six sentence stories and send them as email gifts to friends and family. Write before breakfast. Write after dinner. Write on your hand. Be chic and write in a moleskin. Write on paper napkins. Write on bathroom walls. Write.

2. Read. Read poetry, fiction, blogs, non-fiction. Take every opportunity to let words flow into your mind. It is like being a literature dragon accumulating gold. Immerse yourself in the rich cultural collective of words. Know the pride of Achilles, the tragedy of Juliet, the beauty of Tinturn Abbey, the rape of the lock, why vampires shimmer in the sunlight (even if you feel this is the most debasing thing the trope has ever suffered), the conviction of Howard Roark, who kissed Ryabovich, why Katniss volunteers, and what expecto patronum means. Find sites like www.paperbackswap.com and www.bookmooch.com to supply you with material. Visit that most wondrous hall of wonders– the library and declare the librarians your book goddesses.

3. Think about what you read. Study it. Take apart a passage that worked exceptionally well and theorize why it worked. Write down phrases that struck you with their beauty and eloquence. Savor the words. What makes Hemingway, Hemingway? How does Graham Greene pack so much into his novels? How is it that Angela Carter’s dense prose comes off without being purple? Why is it that the best of classic science fiction had such enthusiasm that it is still worth reading even if dated?

4. Learn about diverse things. Engage with knowledge. Explore the world. Try new activities. If you have never been to Blantyre or Alexandria, how can you know the response to a tall, white American as he walks through the crowds of the market? What really is nano-technology? How did people in the middle ages make clothing? What is the history of the development of guns? What does a person feel the first time they… watch an elephant walk down the road? gaze at one of Monet’s waterlilies? ride in a hot air balloon? swim in an ocean? Our world is so vast. So many things to see, do, and learn about. Let your curiosity set you free and enrich your life.

5. Improve your writing. Get feedback. Critique the writing of other people because it will make your writing better. If you don’t know the rules of grammar– learn. If you have no idea of how to transition from one scene to the next– ask people, keep experimenting, and improve your abilities. Sites like www.critters.org can help you find other writers to critique your work and manuscripts for you to critique. Use the spellcheck and grammar check on your computer. Get familiar with books like The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Invest in The Elements of Style or a couple style books.

5. Make friends with other writers. They are not your competition. They are your comrades with pens. They can give you feedback, engage with you in exploring ideas about writing, help you network, and be there for you when you receive disheartening rejections. Find community because no one can do something as grand as become an author on their own– even if it is true that writing is a solo act.

6. Believe in yourself. This is actually quite a hard thing. All of us have a voice. Sometimes because of life events we get silenced. Sometimes our hearts are broken or responsibilities weigh so heavily that we lose our buoyancy or we get told by well-meaning people that we cannot write, believe in yourself and your talent. Don’t let circumstances or others silence you. Dr. Carter G. Woodson once said, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”

7. Recognize the value of your work. Don’t give your work away for free to others to make money off of it, demand its value. If publishing a poem or a story in a semi-pro magazine and seeing your work in print is enough payment for you, great! But you decide what is sufficient payment and expect some value to come from your work. Writing is work and should be paid as work. While every writer has to advance in their career and may start at a lowly spot, continuing to improve and persevering will pay off. It is possible to make a career of writing, many people do it. Expect that your work will be given its value.

8. Write for an audience. Not everything everyone writes will be universally received. However, write keeping in mind that the intent of the writing is for other people to read it. The goal really is to produce a piece of writing that entertains, challenges people’s conceptions, informs, etc.

9. Get creative and take risks. Break new ground. It keeps the endeavor fresh. Enthusiasm is something that reads through. If you are passionate about what you are writing, this will come through and will help to captivate readers.

10. Get businesslike. I am going to admit that I am not good at this. I enjoy the creative side of writing. I am stimulated by analyzing how good writing works and new ways to approach fiction. I am not so good at thinking pragmatically about my writing. So as I write this, I am setting this as a goal for myself. Create a spreadsheet or some other system, send works out for possible publication, and keep track. Save receipts that cover the cost of doing freelance work. Get systematic about sending out inquiries. Accept writing work that is paid even if it is not preferable. Learning to write and follow someone else’s style guide is part of the business of writing. Get creative about finding new markets. Try new ways to market publish. Think “monetize”. Getting paid for a piece is a grand reward. Seeing your income increase as your writing works its way out into the world reinforces the value of the endeavor in your mind’s eye and everything flows in an upward cycle from there.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know how many things would be on the list. I could add other items like try new forms or forget any delusions about being “A Writer,” but I think this list is pretty good. If you are reading this and you can think of other items to add, please put them in the comments. I am always working on improving my writing and perhaps you will help me.

Sunday Writing Discussions: Mucking Around in the Grey Area

I am behind this weekend in my posting to this blog because I have been working on other writing. I am still working on a couple projects but I decided to take an hour or so and write more thoughts about writing and plot development. I am trying to construct a way of considering the structure and composition of fiction to make the piece more complete as an integrated whole. Some of this falls to how the plot is conceived.

Currently how I am considering a story has different layers.

The first layer has to do in part with what some people would call “world-building” but I think this actually needs to be conceived of more completely. I call this the culture of a story. This includes any description of the exotic setting of a story, but it goes farther. It needs to include the world view or cultural mindset of the milieu being created. For example to make the distinction, the mind set or cultural world view of an Inuit living on a reserve is going to be dramatically different from that of a New Yorker. I once saw an interview with a photographer from New York who discussed how he felt that the world view of people from the American Southwest was dramatically different from the people of New York because people in the Southwest could not avoid seeing the expanse of the sky. This enormity of the sky stretching from horizon to horizon made a difference and he felt people of the Southwest were more in touch with the vastness of the universe. Reality encompasses everything. There is no way to write all of reality. This framing by consciously choosing a “culture of a story” narrows and focuses the fiction at a first level.

The second layer to creating fiction as I am working conceptualizing further narrows things. It is the choice of what I would call a moral system. This moral system may or may not have anything to do with Western Judeo-Christian morality. It is simply the core statement that defines the story one step further. To give an example of what I mean, the moral system of a story might be “crime pays,” “family is important above all else,” or “hard work rewards.” A story about a group of criminals organizing a caper and getting away with it to live in luxury would have the moral system of “crime pays” at its heart. Mario Puzo’s series of books about the Mafia illustrates fiction with the theme of “family is important above all else.” There are many examples of stories and movies that have as their moral system the idea of “hard work rewards.”

The third layer to creating fiction is to create an appropriate main character with a conflict that is central to the story and fits with the culture and the moral system. This is a further focusing of the piece. I will make the distinction that the main character is not necessarily the point of view character, but the main character is the character for whom the conflict must be resolved, whose actions and decisions directly influence the plot sequence, who must be part of the climax through their actions, and whose decisions bring about the resolution.

In creating a plot sequence, opposition is what creates tension. Fiction should not be about standing on a soap box. Opposing elements around a central issue can create opposition for the main character and hence tension in the story. For instance in a simple caper, the master thief cases the museum and sees that the security includes a particular type of alarm. She knows the best person for the job. Ok, but this is too straight forward it needs more opposition. What if that person happens to be her ex-husband who caught her in bed with his best friend? This ups the tension in this simple adventure story. The obstacle to overcome is the sourness of her past relationship.

Another way to increase the tension and bring in opposing elements to give the main character obstacles to their ease of solving their dilemma and finding resolution is to play in the grey areas around an issue. For instance what if a woman suddenly finds herself accidentally pregnant. This is a catalyst for the story. What if the culture of this story is one where abortion is legal but it is frowned upon? What if the moral system of the story is “every individual is responsible for the decisions they make”? What if this main character is from a poor Catholic family? What if the pregnancy is a result of her being date raped and having the child will remind her constantly of the rape and inspire shame? Perhaps she has just been accepted as an intern doctor in a surgical program and this pregnancy will make it so that she cannot do the internship in the highly competitive program she has been admitted to. Maybe she goes to speak to the family priest who tells her that abortion is a sin. What if she finds out that she cannot defer her admittance to the program but can opt for a less high prestige area of specialty? Maybe she talks to her mother who tells her to have an abortion to stay in the program and achieve her dreams because the mother had children before she was able to live out her dreams. Each of these opposing elements that complicate the issue of this woman and her decision to continue the pregnancy or not has the potential to add opposition and tension to the story. The key as a writer is to consider the issue at hand and bring in opposing ideas that explore the grey area of the issue. Sometimes to present a balanced approach, the writer should approach whatever issue they are raising from the opposite of what they believe because this will help in not pulling out a soap box. Ultimately, the resolution will come from the writer’s vision of what they intend to say with the story and what they want to leave the reader thinking about. The resolution must come from the combination of a logical sequence of events that follow in alignment with the intentionally created character and the character’s motivations.

Next time… resolutions and endings.

Sunday Writing Discussion #14: Plotting Part Two

I am working on the chronology and the plot outline for a fantasy novel at the moment. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about issues about plot and what types of elements and structure need to be present to create a good plot.

I want to start this week’s discussion with making the distinction that the chronology of action in a piece of fiction is not necessarily the same as a plot outline. Sometimes the chronology of events that sparks the story starts long before the story itself starts. Sometimes the events of the story are not told chronologically. Often before writing a plot outline it is useful to write out the sequence of events in the chronological order that they happen because this can help with making sure everything fits logically.

As an example in the movie D.O.A. the point of view character comes into the police station and reports a murder. The police asks who has been murdered and the point of view character says that he has. The story then comes out that he has been poisoned, he didn’t know at first and went to the hospital. At the hospital he was diagnosed and told he had three days to live. This gave him three days to find who poisoned him and why. The story is not told chronologically. The riddle of the plot is filled with more tension because it starts with the surprise at the beginning of the protagonist reporting his own murder.

Sometimes in fiction there are actions that happen far prior to the immediate story that are part of the background to the story. As an example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually starts much sooner than Romeo out carousing with his clansmen, seeing Juliet, and falling in love. It starts with whichever of his and her ancestors originated the feud that is the backdrop to the story. This original fight doesn’t have to be included in the fictional work but knowledge of it informs the piece. It helps to set ecology and the “moral” system of the story. It gives the play an orienting starting point.

Every culture has its own moral system that often is very subtle and people who are living in the culture take it for granted. As writers we have to be very conscious not only of the cultural moral system that we live in, but also the one that we create in a work of fiction. Fiction is one of the ways that morality– what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate behavior– is conveyed. The Iliad is not just about the Trojan War. It is not a chronological presentation of the history of events of that time period. It is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. It explores this through the juxtaposition of Achilles and Hector. It uses the actions of Achilles to demonstrate his character and point up the fault of pride.

Creating a moral system in a piece of fiction does not mean standing on a soap box and getting preachy. If a writer wants to do that, I would say to them go write a persuasive essay. Fiction is meant to entertain. Encountering someone standing on a soap box and preaching for most folks is a real turn off.

Creating a moral system further does not mean that the writer has to reflect the main cultural point of view that they come from. The creation of a moral system is a way to frame what the author wants to talk about and explore. For example, a writer could create a story of success where the main character is a good Joe. The character works hard and illustrates through his actions that he is honest, hard-working, and perseveres. Maybe the tension in the story comes from another worker who is his competition/opposition who is also trying to get the promotion. The moral system of this story is that hard-work pays off and if a person perseveres and goes that extra mile, he will be rewarded.

Not all fiction has to come from this rather mainstream moral system. As an example look at The Godfather. The chronology of The Godfather goes farther back than the story. The moral system starts in Sicily with the strong sense of family. Family is all-important. Even if the family is involved in crime that doesn’t matter. What matters is the bonds between the family members.

The moral system of a piece of fiction could be anything the author wants to create. It could be the exact reverse of “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” It could be “crime pays.” Perhaps it is about a group of criminals who shun regular society and are very successful at stealing and live well. The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven spring to mind.

So if the writer has a chronology and they have identified the moral system that will frame their story, the next part of plotting to figure out is how to highlight and play with that moral system. The movements of the story and the actions of the characters must illustrate this moral system. Again it cannot be a bit of grandstanding. No soap boxes. The ending will however be where the writer tips their hand and tells which side of the moral system they fall on and the moral system will ultimately be revealed.

But this has to come from the murky, grey area. Remember stories come from conflict and tension. So… next discussion: Stories From The Grey Area

Thursday Night Writing Prompts: Prompts from My Junk Email


Today I was deleting spam email that ended up in my Junk box. I was amusing myself by thinking about the email and I came up with a few writing prompts.

1. “Enlarge Your Manhood by Three Whole Inches” This advertisement definitely makes me giggle everytime I get it in my junk folder. I am not a man. Does this mean that if I took this supplement I would become a hermaphrodite? Also if I were a man the ad is not specific about which direction the manhood would grow three inches larger. What if it grew three inches thicker? This started me thinking about such supplements and what if they did these remarkable things. What if a pill could make someone a hermaphrodite? What if it became a trend? What story could be generated from these general ideas?

2. “I am contacting you because you are the beneficiary of Mr. Blankety-Blanks estate.” I have had some wild adventures but I seriously doubt anything that I have done would merit me being the beneficiary of anyone’s estate– particularly if I could not remember the name. Well, on second thought… Anyway, write a story where the point of view character finds out that they are the beneficiary of a wealthy person’s estate who they met and had a fling with several years before.

3. “I am an African princess who is being oppressed and I need your help moving my vast wealth out of my country so that I can escape.” What if this is legitimate and the point of view character trustingly helps the “African princess”?

4. “Best gadget on the planet, order yours today!” I get a variety of these in my junk box everyday for everything from solar televisions to orthotic shoes to heal plantar fasciitis. Make up a gadget and describe what it does. Maybe the point of view character could be a salesperson. Maybe this person buys one of the gadget that seems like a fake ad or too good to be true and the gadget really does something fantastical.

5. “Easy credit for people with a bad credit history– apply today!” So, maybe there is a catch. Maybe they will give anyone credit– as long as they sign over their soul, first born child, etc. What would be something new to hold as collateral and make this fresh and have a new twist?

Just a few writing prompts.

 

Sunday Writing Discussion #12: Critiques and Beta Readers

It is important to get feedback on one’s art or writing. When I was an undergraduate I spent two years in art school. I studied all the basics and focused on textiles. I participated in many art critiques. One of my professors was very hard core. Her critiques included all her students ranging from first years through graduate students. She was notorious for sending students out of the room crying because her critiques were so brutal. I had a work study job as the lab assistant to this professor, I asked her why she was so blunt in her critiques. She told me that she did it intentionally. Her rationale included many points: 1. once an artist puts their work out to the public, anyone can say anything and the artist needs to be toughened to take it; 2. art is a craft and the artist needs to have distance from their art and not perceive criticism as a critique of themselves; and 3. an uncouched, direct, and honest critique of one’s work is not always available– it is a luxury and it needs to not be misinterpreted. She believed that artists need to know what was what in order to learn what they were doing wrong in order to improve.

A several years ago I returned to doing artwork and took classes in 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional design, drawing, color, and a survey course. One of my instructors I admired greatly. Her approach was very different and very gentle. She allowed work to be redone after a critique to improve one’s grade in order that the student could learn from the feedback that they had been given. She spoke about how artists needed to both develop their own intuition, their inner critic, that could guide them in the production of their work and to have trusted people that could give them honest feedback. She believed that people needed to hear what they were doing correct in their compositions initially so that they could build confidence and knowledge and as they advanced in their artistic studies they needed to refine their knowledge and learn more about what needed to improve. All of this was to gradually build one’s inner critic because being an artist is a solo endeavor. But she always maintained that having someone else who could give feedback was an essential.

Writing is also primarily a solo endeavor. The writer writes their manuscript on their own. It is quite easy to become taken with one’s words and not be able to evaluate easily if one has accomplished the writing goals that one set out to initially accomplish. I have been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is a useful book. In the book the first thing that the authors mentioned is that time helps writers to gain some distant from their writing that will help them to edit their work. They say that this is one of the most helpful things a writer can do for themselves. The book goes on to talk about various aspects of fiction writing and gives checklists of things to consider and be aware of to improve one’s writing. The book is partially a manual to help writers to develop their inner critic that they can trust to guide their writing.

Two other things can help writers to develop their own inner critic and the trust to listen to its guidance. One is simply to practice, practice, practice. It is an old adage that the first million words a writer will write are garbage. This isn’t an adage that I entirely buy into because I think writing rules always have exceptions. Further, I am a teacher and people learn at different rates and in different ways. Some writers may need to write that million words. Others may not because they can read and analyze literature and think of how to apply writing techniques, they can learn faster from their own writing, they may have an innate genius like Harper Lee, etc. But the essence of the advice I think is sound. The more one writes, the better they typically get.

The other thing that can help writers to improve is receiving critiques from beta readers. I have received hundreds of critiques on my work at this point. Not all beta readers are equal. Sometimes it takes either getting many critiques from many beta readers and interpreting what themes come out of all the critiques OR having a few very trusted people who understand one’s writing and can provide useful critiques.

When one is interpreting critiques, it is important to look across the themes of what comes up in those critiques. Very often critiques are provided by other novice writers who do not entirely know what to say about a piece of writing but they are reacting to certain parts. Also, most people do not want to risk offending a person that they are critiquing for and they will often tone down what they are saying or phrase things euphemistically. This means that the writer needs to in some ways decipher what the critiquer has said. For instance, a critiquer might say that they loved a particular character and that the short story felt like part of something larger. On the surface this comes across as a compliment. It doesn’t help the writer who needs honest feedback to improve their writing. This kind of statement needs to be thought about because the critiquer was giving feedback on a short story and what they are expressing is that the story in its current form did not work for them. It might not be that expanding the short story into a novella or novel is appropriate or would be good storytelling. It might be that the character was compelling, but the pacing of the story was off and it did not hit the plot points strong enough to provide a satisfying ending to the story. It might be that the story had an interesting central character but there were too many other elements crammed into the story, it lurched from scene to scene, and then rushed to an ending. That comment that it felt like part of something larger could apply to many different scenarios.

If a critiquer comments that a scene or line really stood out and was well-written, this might not be a compliment to be taken at face value. The writing should not stand out above the fabric of the story as whole. One dynamic scene in a story that gets compliments from critiquers is just that. It does not make for a good overall short story. Same with that one beautifully turned phrase.

Even straight forward comments in a critique need to be thought through. For instance a beta reader might say that they didn’t believe a character would act in a certain way. The character might act in that way, but the writer might have failed to effectively tell the story and “sell” why the character would do that particular action. The character’s motivation may not be apparent. The problem might be with characterization, the described action from a previous scene, or a slight logic problem in the world building. It’s up to the writer to think through what went awry and rewrite the story to make it work.

Beta readers or critiquers that one knows and trusts to be honest and thorough take time to find. If an author is asking for their feedback, it is important to honor what they have to say by contemplating on it. It is still the writer’s decision and responsibility about where to take their writing or how to rewrite a particular piece. If the writer is getting defensive or making statements that the critiquers don’t understand their work or are just being mean, that writer should probably think about why they had people read their work in the first place. Was it to get compliments or to get feedback so that they could improve their writing?

Very few of us start doing art work and produce gilded masterpieces. Very few of us write prose that is magical straight off. Few of us are “special” in that we can skip developing whatever talent we have and go to instant success. Feedback is important. It helps not only with the piece that one is currently working on but also to help develop one’s sensibilities and ability to evaluate one’s own work.

Thursday Writing Prompts: Fever Dreams

I have not been feeling well all week. I came home this evening and climbed into bed. My thoughts are a little random and so these writing prompts are coming straight from not feeling so great and very tired brain. I hope they can spark some creativity!

1. What kind of monster lives at the bottom of “surprise casserole” in the dormitory cafeteria? How does it survive?

2. What if light poles were a type of sentience and wandered the streets looking to be illuminating? What might this alleviate? What other impacts might there be to this?

3. What if a certain type of running shoe could stimulate something in the human physiology and genuinely improve the athletic ability of people who trained in them?

4. What if the dreams that we dream are really tuning into the thoughts of other alternate universes and this is what is ultimately discovered via theoretical physics? What does this say about flying dreams? Dreams where the physics of the dream defy the laws of ordinary physics?

5. If your point of view character could step into any painting, which painting would they step into? What would be the story behind this?