Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

The writer “me” wrestles with fear and loathing. The analytical “me” tells the writer “me” he’s an idiot and shut up. Both have valid points; I ignore them and write. One word after another, “enter” button to the next paragraph, there we go . . . .

The accumulative “we” are plagued with doubts, thrashed by rejection, and harried by the many duties required to be writers in the modern world: write, edit, post, respond, research, follow, send, wait, research some more, wait some more, all the while writing every day and dripping sweat onto our keyboards.

Writing is a wonderful thing.

One person appreciates what you agonized over, so who cares that no-good editor sent you a form rejection? Place that rejection in your collection-of-rejection file, send the story to the next market on your list—that reader might be the one to give your life’s work credence. Hope: Keep it, Embrace it.

Write

Only you can tell the stories you have to tell. Oh, sure, learn the craft, study published authors, every day add new knowledge to your masterpiece. That’s how it should be.

Write

It’s as simple as that. Not quite, eh? What’s the problem? Time and responsibilities got you down? Does “What do I Write About” haunt you? Vow to never grow stagnant. Create something outside your field of interest, your genre, and experiment.

You see, it does not matter what you write, only that you do. Writing is what matters, and the prose can be anything other than a grocery list.  Butt in the seat, fingers on the keyboard, thoughts transcribed in front of you. The crux of writing is writing. Can I be any clearer?

I understand it’s infinitely easier to sit on the porch sipping lemon aide, dreaming of being a writer and going to book signings, being lauded as the next great novelist.

I once dreamed of playing guitar. I never owned one, didn’t practice, took no courses to learn music.

At one point I wanted to be an artist, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I never practiced other than scratching out one-dimensional stick men.

Dreams, mists, nothing more.

Is that what writing is to you? I will be blunt: if that is your attitude, if washing your hair takes priority over ironing out a plot problem or further developing a character, you are not a fiction writer.

It’s okay to not be a writer, just as it’s okay to not be a chef.

For me, writing satisfies a yearning and passion—it nurtures my soul. It may not be for you, and that’s okay.

But if the passion boils in you, simmers in a constant stew of writing thoughts, discard the negative as you would an old toothbrush—no regrets. Then please, please reach out to the keyboard or pad of paper and write. Create your dreams, and then share them with the rest of us.

The fear and loathing may huddle in the shadows, but at least your dreams will be a tangible reality—nobody can take that away from you, and perhaps the next editor on your list will hoist your by-line for the world to see.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Writer’s Block is a Myth

(To celebrate Knights of Writ’s 100th blog post, I offer this lie-buster)

Every week of every year writers compose articles and blogs about how to defeat the dreaded Writers Block. Each is a lie—Writer’s Block does not exist.

“Wait,” you cry out, “I’ve stared at the blank page for hours, paced the room, succumbed to a shot of Jack Daniels to loosen the thoughts. Nothing works.”

Before you scoff and click away—jettisoned to the next article entitled “Defeating Writer’s Block the Last Time,”—realize this: claiming Writer’s Block is only an excuse to not write.

You have bought the lie, and the price is a heavy burden indeed . . . inactivity.

Writer’s Block has grown to legendary status among writers (and by those composing articles to perpetrate the lie) and is a fodder field of articles entitled, “8 Ways to Guarantee You Don’t Get Writer’s Block,” or “10 Ways to Avoid Writer’s Block.” A recent Writer’s Digest Magazine published three articles under the umbrella heading, “Beating Writer’s Block.”

Although many articles about Writer’s Block contain nifty exercises or prompts to help creativity, their assumption is misplaced.

Why? Because writers have bought into the existence of the dragon.

The reason you feel gripped by Writer’s Block is simple—you have limited your options.

A well-known anecdote about Isaac Asimov explains how he had several typewriters in his office—this is in the 1940’s and 50’s before computers—each with a different writing project. When one did not shake his world, he went to another and worked. He explained the mind needs excitement and becomes weary when working day after day on the same subject.

Professional writers create whether or not they are “in the mood.” Does a doctor only operate when he’s in-the-mood, a lawyer defend when the mood suits them? Have you ever heard of a plumber’s block, or a longshoreman’s block, or a bartender’s block (heaven forbid!)? None exist; neither does Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is an imaginary entity we give credence. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with terror or maybe a self-worth issue. Although that may be the case, I usually find writers bemoan the “Block” when their work encompasses too few options.

So entranced and focused on a minimum of choices, a writer rolls over and over the same information, trying to fix the same problem, come up with the right idea, when all that’s needed is to let the subconscious sort it all out.

Writer’s Block is caused by an over-simplified expectation: you are ready to work on this particular project right now. Sorry, it doesn’t always work that way.

Often it does, and that’s when you stream through the story, fingers a blur, white spaced fill with squiggly black letters. Other times you have to take a deep breath, open a new folder, and work on a different project.

I have 5 books (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) in varied degrees of completion, 5 times that many short stories, a dozen article ideas, 18 blog topics I wish to pursue—when I’m not tuned with a particular one, I find another.

I have a couple projects I work on most every day, but if I run into a wall for some reason, I have others to fall back to until I’m ready to re-tackle the primary item.

The point is this: writing every day is a given, and we must be ready to improvise and juggle when something goes awry, ie., when a specific piece of writing needs more simmer time.

This is a natural process, not a Block, writer or otherwise.

We must not give the Myth wings and let it carry away our sensibilities. It’s time to refuse to go along for the ride; instead, open another folder and work on a different project. In the end you will find you complete more, and in the process, improve your skills.

As a last word on the subject, I turn to Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just sit down and get to work.”

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Ultimate Character Checklist

When developing a character, it’s essential to know “who” that person is, what they represent, and their current journey.

A Character Sketch helps the process, but is only a springboard to creating well-rounded characters; answering particular questions illuminates all aspects of the character—it is then up to you to show the reader what you wish to highlight. Much of what you know about your character will not be revealed, but it is important to be intimately aware of the people you create.

I developed this Character Stretch from a wide variety of sources, altered to fit my needs, with the sole intent of trying to improve my characters. The sketch has evolved, and because of the vast resources used (some surely lost to memory), I hold no bond to it. For that reason, feel free to copy and paste the Character Sketch into a document file, and add or change to satisfy your own purposes.

Characters are made up of three parts: The Outer Person (what the reader sees), which I refer to as the Skeleton; the Interested Person (the actions the character takes and the reader watches unfold), represented by the Flesh; and the Internal Person (what the character, and thus the reader, feels), the Breath of the character.

Character Sketch

Outer Person—The Skeleton

Name, gender, age, general appearance (height, weight, body type), profession and/or skills, education level, family and friend associations with background as necessary to the story; where they grew up (Texan or young girl from Bali), and the particular culture that helped shape them.

Choices of clothing and other possessions (a man who owns a truck or a college freshman driving a BMW) indicates status and is accompanied by layers of attitude; jewelry or not; tidy or disheveled? Somewhere in between?

Gestures or quirks (tilting of head, rubbing hands, brushing at hair, a limp, etc.), not to be overused; if applicable, does the character always put one sock and shoe on before the other, or both socks followed by both shoes? Why?

Speech patterns: slow and thought-out, fast and free of societal filters, contradictions or not, vocabulary and choice of words, sarcastic, impatient, accommodating, condescending—there’s a slew of different reactions and dialogue venues, and you will probably use several in different circumstances for each character.

Paraphernalia and indispensables (purse, wallet, watch, sword, revolver, etc.).

Interests—The Flesh

Favorite and least favorite things to do–how they spend idle time; pet-peeves and prejudices; how they think they appear to others (and how others view them), true or not; to what lengths will they go to accomplish their desires (lie, cheat, and connive, or deal with life’s set-backs and move on).

Is the character’s general attitude haughty, reserved, humble, daring, loyal, over-emotional, analytical to annoyance (we can all be many of these, and so should your characters); typically a good person or one out for themselves (a little of both shows contrast and adds dimension).

Work ethic: what motivates them to succeed and/or do better; what things or scenarios intrigue them? Do they like their job, or tolerate it while harboring deep-seated dreams?

World view? Do they root for the underdog or do they want to associate with the top dog; me against the world or me helping the world, ie., do they feel an obligation to help the less fortunate? What is the purpose of life and their place in it? Is there a God, or does science answer the questions surrounding existence?

Emotions—The Breath

What the character feels when:

They witness someone being mistreated, and what do they do? What do they think and how do they react when they see an animal being mistreated (one’s feeling about animals—dirty, adorable, useful, indifferent—speaks volumes about a person); when someone falls down, do they instantly try to help or stand back and assess the situation before acting?

How do they feel (and act) when they don’t get their way, when they can’t convince another and the outcome is important, at least to them.

What makes them happy/sad? How do they react to their own emotions and the emotions of others? Empathize, sympathize, or neither?

What internal dialogues do they adopt (determined to do better, or wallow in self-pity); do they like who they are?

Their opinion of people outside their economic/social strata: do they strive to be like them or abhor the success of others when they are struggling to make ends meet?

Do they settle for second best or yearn for the best? Do they care about the Jones’s or not in the least? How do they compare their life to others? Do they buy in to media hype or think only fools pay attention?

What do they value? Money, love, friendship, making their own decisions or counting on others to lead them? Loner or social butterfly? Drawn to cliques and the “in group” or avoids them?

Thoughts on life’s purpose and death.

Frugal or wasteful? Planning for the future or living every moment like their last?

Describe a character’s rage, pain, fear, or helplessness? How do they react (physically and internally) when beset by emotion? Do they control their feelings or let loose with tears, hurtful words, or do they fly into a tirade.

When developing a character, place that person in a tense or stressful situation and see how they react. These exercises are great for getting to know your characters, and while the instances you create may not be used in your writing, they just might. Let yourself go to discover who this person is and what floats their boat.

Some writers suggest interviewing your character; try and see if it works for you.

Working through different scenarios will enhance the relationship you have with your characters, and will help readers see them better.

You may not answer all the questions, and that’s okay—the purpose is gaining a better understanding of your character. You may find, like me, that the Character Sketch is filled in bit by bit as your writing progresses.

I titled this The Ultimate Character Sketch, but it only fits that description if you modify to suit your own needs. Have at it and make it fun–writing should be enjoyable, after all.

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S. I love the graphic at top of page, but I do think it needs the word, MORE, added.

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Writing — Whatever it Takes

writing just do it

This morning I had a long discussion with myself about writing—the why’s, the how’s, the what for’s—and found I was talking to an idiot.

The idiot told me not to write today: “It’s too hard,” he whined. “I’m not ready.”

I nodded. Some days thoughts and ideas bubble forth faster than I can type, a fast-moving river carving new landscapes; other writing days resemble a muddy puddle—today was the latter.

The murky writing days are not caused by the proverbial Writer’s Block—ideas and sentences do exist in my mind—but pulling them from brain to page requires a will not damaged and lethargic.

“Maybe read a book,” the idiot suggested, and that made sense because reading often loosens the creative spirit and lubricates a tired will. “There’s also the Netflix movie that just arrived,” he added.

Brainless entertainment. “That sounds good,” I agreed, and as soon as I voiced the words, realized I was being manipulated. I sat up straight, fingers arched over the keyboard. “This is writing time, damnit!”

It was a dark and stormy night . . . redrum, redrum . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .

“It sure is the worst of times,” the idiot pointed out. “There’s not an original thought in your head.”

“I have my own thoughts,” I countered, a defensive resolve tightening through my shoulders,  “and they are unique to me. I have to share them.”

“Why?”

“Other writers may be having trouble right now. Perhaps I can help the same way you helped me?”

“What?”

“Having this conversation has opened the wellspring, you know, the writing tap is flowing again.”

“You used me?”

I couldn’t contain the smile. “That’s right. I started typing our conversation, and here I am, almost done with the blog. And it’s given me a new idea for my novel.”

“That’s pretty underhanded, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you, and I won’t, but when it comes to writing, whatever it takes to get the words down is fine with me. After all, you internal critics are idiots, so what does it matter?”

Now, off to work on that new idea for the novel . . . .

See you on the next page,

Rick

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How To Grab The Reader

typewriter and blue birds

Patience is a virtue most people don’t have time to wait for—this is especially true of readers.

Life in the twenty-first century is hectic, so as a writer you must grab the reader and yank them into your tale, lest they be drawn away by any of a thousand distractions vying for their attention. (I read a study that determined, on average, people check their cell phone over 200 times a day!).

While writing for newspapers, I learned the basic tenets of news and article writing. My edgy, squinty-eyed editor explained that news stories are built as an inverted V, the most important elements listed at the pointed top: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. Fiction writing is much the same.

The beginning of your story or novel (those first few words or couple paragraphs) is called the Hook, and is critical to your success. I refer to it as the “calling” or the “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and pull them deeper into the story.

Entice the reader with excitement at the outset. This is not the place for Backfill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies. There is time for backfill, but gone are the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s technique of spending pages of description prior to getting to the point, and thus forward movement.

Grab the reader by the lapel and force them into your world. Here’s the first paragraph of my short story, Eyes of Destiny.

Kolvett’s stomach recoiled, churning, the mealy bread threatening to lurch onto slick planks as the Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles, Kolvett squinted past white caps at land peaking above the horizon—the shore was the gondrag’s destination, and for whatever reason, him with it. He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

 This opening paragraph attempts to do several things:

  1. Introduces the character, Kolvett, whose story this is. In most cases, I like the character tag in the first sentence because character is what all stories are about in the end. If the reader cannot associate with the character and does not care what happens to them, they won’t continue reading. Losing a reader is the worst thing for a writer.
  2. Gives the setting and implies an earlier time in history: Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. At this point, time and placement is unknown and will be revealed later in the story.
  3. Sets up a problem: Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles . . . Kolvett is bound and being led somewhere, but does not know where or why—the shore was the gondrag’s destination . . . The use of the word, gondrag, which was earlier described as the Emperor’s war galley indicates the fantasy element of the story.
  4. Mystery: . . . and for whatever reason, him with it. Every story needs an element of mystery, if nothing more than the reader’s question of, What is going to happen?
  5. A promise of something more: He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

One of the best tools you can use as a writer is adding items in your beginning that start your reader asking questions: Who is Kolvett? Why is he bound? Where is he being taken? Why has he been kept alive, and who are his captors?

Another example from a work in progress, a story entitled Nychelle’s Gate.

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, gasping, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father. “I won’t do it,” she spat out, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. That was not the worst of being “taken,” though, nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there.

Again, the opening paragraph attempts to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduce the main character, Nychelle.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies they are nomadic and have not yet reached the advanced culture of developing towns or cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people that populate the story.
  3. Confrontation by her dialogue, “I won’t do it” shows a problem, and that her parents are at the center of it. This conflict is geared to raise the tension of the scene.
  4. There are other hints within these 64 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy, (she shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there).
  5. It hints at Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the Elder.

There are many ways to start a story—the important element is convincing the reader early on that the time put into reading your story is well spent. To do that, accomplish these five things:

Begin your story with action, “something” happening to your character.
Put your character in a time and place (setting).
Through conflict, show the character’s problem as early as possible.
Hints (foreshadowing) are good.
An element of mystery will draw the reader forward into the next story section.

Take a look at the beginning of a current work in progress to see if you have enticed the reader; if not, rework the piece with the items discussed at the forefront.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Hard Facts About Fiction Writing

We fiction writers create because we must; to do otherwise causes many to feel unfulfilled, and in some cases, downright depressed. Such is the way of it.

When not creating characters and worlds, another part of the profession is research, whether it be learning about concepts necessary to the plot, how things work and function, or reading other writers in order to learn more about the craft.

Hard truths await the growing writer, and one of those uncomfortable realizations is how little fiction is bought and published; this fact translates into the daunting odds stacked against the new writer, especially budding novelists.

Being a realist, I understand the steep road we must journey to reach the mountain of success—success in this case defined as having our writing bought and published.

80% of all conventionally published books are non-fiction: news/current events, sports, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, How-To and Self-help (perhaps the largest types of NF books), history, and all else deemed true.

Of the 20% of books published that are fiction, about half falls into the Romance genre. In her book, Characters, Emotions, and Viewpoints, Nancy Kress claims Romance accounts for 55% of all novels published, which leaves less than 10% for all other genres: mystery/thriller, Speculative (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), historical (historical romances are already accounted for within romance genre), western, and any other you can think of, including literary and mainstream.

The data is a bit sporadic and convoluted, but the best info I have found is that in the U.S., approximately 300,000 books are published annually, worldwide about 2 million.

An estimate of manuscripts received by agents and publishers easily ranges in the several million. Whew! A lot of competition out there and not much room to squeeze your completed novel past the slush pile. I am offering a distinction between novels produced by publishing houses and all else; the all else is not included in the numbers—the self-published (also known as Vanity Press) uploaded to Kindle or Amazon or any of the many venues available.

The debate of whether to self-publish will have to wait for another post.

What is a struggling writer to do? Write. Learn. Write more. After all, writing is what we must do to retain our sanity. Send stories into the world. Wait. Battle the gloom cast by rejections. Send the stories to others. Repeat.

There you have it: the reality of the new writer. There are no shortcuts unless you are lucky enough to have an uncle that is a writer (and you get along) who introduces you to a professional editor or agent who may be able to help you with your career. Most of us do not.

It is up to us to sit down every day and turn our imaginings into reality on the page. That is what we do, that is what we love, and most would have it no other way.

To increase the odds of success (ie., getting published) Writer’s Digest publishes several “market” books that are invaluable to all levels of writers. At the moment, WD is heavily discounting their 2016 “market” books and ebooks by up to 75%—a perfect time to add to your writing library. You can find them at Writer’s Digest.

See you on the next page,

Rick

A Note to my friends and followers: I will be on vacation over the next two weeks, and my plan is to unplug and disconnect during that time—I will, of course, have my pen and notepad with me so as not to miss any instants of inspiration. I will return in August. See you then.

I love comments, so please feel free to add your own thoughts to the posts at Knights of Writ. Be sure to share any post with fellow writers, and don’t forget to sign up to receive weekly posts in your in-box.

Fact is Stranger Than Fiction, But That Does Not Make a Good Story

 

Michelangelo's_DavidA story in last week’s headlines about a woman who fired a gun through a McDonald’s drive-through window because her order was wrong (“What, no bacon? Well, take that!”) started me thinking how Fact is, indeed, Stranger Then Fiction—though that alone does not make a story. (You can find the details here). Perhaps I could have titled this entry, Writers Can Learn From Stupid People.

In every writing class and in every writer’s group there is always someone who defends their piece of writing by stating, quite emphatically, that the events written were exactly as they happened. Okay, but does that make a story?

Here’s an example of a conversation just as it happened:

“Hey, Ben, how you doing?”
“Good, how about you?”
“Liking the weather.”
“Yeah, I decided to ride my bike instead of driving.”
“Save some gas money, huh?”
“Every little bit helps.”
“Did you hear about the new order from the top?”
“No, what’s up?”

In the above example, two people are talking but saying little. So, what’s the problem other than the conversation is BORING? There is little in the first part of the conversation that hints to some type of conflict. Every scene, in one way or another, should have conflict, either between the characters (even if they are friends) or in the thoughts of the Point of View character. This conversation also included no mystery until the very end, and still the response is inadequate.

As a side note—regardless of what genre, mystery plays an important part in holding the reader’s interest: what is going to happen, will that decision come back to haunt the lead character, can they survive against such odds? Whatever the mystery, it must be important to the character, and thereby, concern the reader.

Additional side note—equally important is what the writer chooses to leave out of the story; not everything you know about your characters is important to the story you are telling. Often, we as writers think the reader needs to know everything; this is not true.

Case in point: the dialogue above, which lacks color, depth, and little to entice the reader to continue. Most should be removed, replaced by action that shows the person rode his bike, for instance, by having the viewpoint character notice the bicycle helmet in their hand or sitting on a desk nearby. However the writer decides will be superior to the drab dialogue, which should be removed, or at least improved to show conflict.

Returning to the woman who fired a gun through the McDonald’s drive-thru; as it stands, the story offers little more than the very act itself, which brings us to the conclusion that some people are really stupid. But what if there existed something more, like motivation? What if the woman was shooting at a woman who she thinks is flirting with her boyfriend, or at a woman who is having an affair with her husband while she stays home with the three children? Now there is conflict other than no bacon on a hamburger.

Let your mind go wild when trying to reenact a scene that did take place in real life. Add a twist, ask the invaluable but often forgotten, What If? question. There are stories surrounding us, people and events that deserve to be told—they just have to be massaged and tweaked to nurture them into a valid story encompassing the necessary ingredients that make stories unforgettable: character-conflict-conclusion.

Now, go write about something that really happened and improve on it . . .


This Week’s Quote:

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Michelangelo

This Week’s Links:

Piggy-backing on last week’s link: Unusual Girl’s Names
Ever Wonder How to Pronounce a Word?
Publication Opportunities, April and May 2015
Famous Writers Insult Each Other

Knightsofwrit