Embracing the Writer’s Conflict(s)

frustratedWriterAtComputerTalking Conflict, Thinking Conflict

Writers talk a lot about conflict. And they should. It’s the lifeblood of any story. So we sit down at the keyboard, or the notebook, or the electronic device du jour, and think about Mary, and how she wants a new samurai sword, but her parents disapprove of her martial arts obsession, and even more so of a long, sharp instrument. Or we think of something else where humans are up against some sort of opposition.

Self-Conflict

We are in conflict, ourselves, as we write. At any moment, as we write, we’re standing in the shoes of the character who is acting at the moment. If it’s a character who is important to the story, they are no doubt in conflict, which means you are, too. You are, in fact, that character. If you couldn’t empathize like that, you probably wouldn’t be a fiction writer.

Life Conflictwriter-having-inspiration-block-and-frustration_r-yf1qioe_thumbnail-full01

If you’re a part-time writer, like me, you’re probably engaged in other conflicts, too. Maybe your day job keeps you so busy it’s hard to find time for your art. Maybe you have a conflict of desires; for instance, you want to be an excellent writer, but you want to be an excellent parent, too, and sometimes the choice between one and the other is grating.

Muse Conflict

There’s the work, too. If you’re trying to get something started, there’s that blank page/screen/stone tablet staring you in the face, daring you to make a mark. You might be well into a manuscript, only to have it turn around and start fighting you for every word. The muse might be throwing words at you by the bushel… only they’re all bad.

Value Conflict

And what about the worthiness of that work? After all, the writer’s conflict is of a very different, arguably far less intense, type that that of soldiers, police officers, emergency room personnel, and the like. Especially for the part-time writer, there’s a nagging voice in your head sometimes that tries to convince you you’re wasting valuable time making stuff up, and you have to argue back, or summon the fortitude to ignore it.

artsyWriterPicConflict is the woven into the heart of every story, and into the life of every writer. It’s inescapable. My though? Embrace it. Make it your guide and see where it takes you.

Cheers,

 

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Help in a Writer’s Hard Times

get by with a little help from my friendsHard Times

The last several months of work on novel #2 have been pretty miserable. I felt like I was dragging every word out of my brain by its heels, kicking and screaming. When they finally landed on the page, my only thoughts were self-bolstering phrases like:

This is terrible.

Can this get any more boring?

The story isn’t going anywhere.

Craziness

I went a little crazy. I spent a bunch of time on outlining schemes and re-writing. I wrote three new openings for the book. Still, I wasn’t happy with it. I even flirted with starting a new book altogether.

The Cavalry Arrives

At last it came time for me to submit my stack of pages to my critique group. As it turned out, their evaluation was radically different from my own:

“The writing is compelling and beautiful.”

“Another great episode.”

“What a powerful story.”

“…mastery of revision, and fluent writing style.”

I was floored, in a good way, like when you finally work up the courage to ask that out-of-your-league person out and they say “yes.” The positive feedback was a huge shot in the arm. Now I am writing with a positive outlook on the work and all the joy I had when I started it.

Objective Views

It’s wonderful how an objective view (or views) of your writing can change it for the better. Often such views are editorial and corrective, pointing out weaknesses you need to fix, and that’s always good. But sometimes, the objective view can just be encouragement. I don’t find writing lonely, but I do find it solitary, and I’m grateful for capable people I can reach out to for help on a regular basis.

Your Thoughts?

If you have some ingenious way of getting objective feedback on your writing, I’d love to know about it, and so would the other three people who read this blog. Please leave a comment. Thanks!

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P.S.: I wrote a novel ( get it here ) called Trouble Spots. Now I just need somebody to read it. Here’s the skinny:
Grieving over his dead parents, newly homeless, and bereft of his beloved younger brother, Colin Davis, aspiring writer and compulsive smartass, is certain life can’t get any worse, and it probably can’t. But then there’s the afterlife… When an injury sends Colin’s body into a coma, his soul awakens in the claw foot tub intended for the Limbo-bound, but a demon dressed like a Bible salesman tricks him into entering Hell instead. Colin’s one avenue of escape: Thin Spots, unreliable portals between realities that are as likely to land him in the lobby of a Ramada Inn as in the caldera of an active volcano. His quest to obtain the one means of controlling Spots, the Golden Bough, puts him on a collision course with Satan, who wants the Bough to launch a war against an unwary Heaven. To get the Bough and save the universe (and, incidentally, his brother), Colin, with the help of Hell’s queen, her handmaid, and a scholarly angel, embarks on a quest across the ocean of Limbo to beg Heaven’s unwilling angels for help. When the angels refuse his plea, Colin decides victory is a do-it-yourself deal, where the terms are a deep breath and a dive into the hottest flames Hell has to offer.

Get it here. 

5 Ways to Strangle Your Creativity

stranglerVineWhat a Pain…

Your inborn creativity is probably a large part of what makes you a writer. Situations, characters and settings pop into your consciousness like bubble from the bottom of a boiling pot. You are also probably driven to a certain degree by a compulsion to bring new things out of your brain and into the world.

What a pain in the neck!

All that stuff rattling around in your head, not to mention that nagging voice going “Write, write!” like some shriveled, cantankerous maiden aunt, is just a drag.

Killing Creativity

Here are five ways to choke off that pesky creative gift:

  • Make writing a hit-or-miss affair. Forget about making a commitment to write on a regular schedule. Write when you feel like it, or when it’s convenient, or when there’s nothing good on TV. Sure, you’ll spend most of your time trying to get your narrative voice tuned up and remember what happened in the story last, but who cares? It’s a casual deal, right, this writing?
  • Don’t read. This includes craft books, fiction, non-fiction, magazine, the newspaper, and package labels. Get as much information and entertainment as you can from broadcast media. The farther you get from the written word, the less inclined you’ll be to bother with it – and the less able!
  • Avoid art in general. Stop listening to music. Limit your broadcast consumption to fact-based programming. Stay away from art museums, and if you happen on a piece of public art, either ignore it or make fun of it.
  • Never take time out. Don’t sit back and let your mind wander. Don’t daydream. Keep every minute of every day filled with some productive activity, like polishing your doorknobs or picking the lint out of your rugs with tweezers and a magnifying glass. Work lots of unnecessary overtime.
  • Do it somebody else’s way. If you must write something creative, don’t do it in your own, unique fashion. Find somebody else’s method and follow it like you were its slave. For example, take the Hero’s Journey model and follow it exactly, and write from 4:30 until 6:30 every morning, even though you’re not a morning person and it’s more natural for you to write in shorter bursts.

I hope you’ll be able to find the fortitude to smash your creativity flat. If not, well, shucks… you’ll just have to write and enjoy yourself, I suppose. My sympathies.

Happy writing!

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Trouble Spots: The manic tale of a young man's escape from Hell.
The manic tale of a young man’s escape from Hell. Think: action, laughs, outrageous demons, and even romance. Or don’t think at all—it’s up to you. Available at most online bookstores.

Looking for Ideas? Look to the Shadows

Carrying Darknessshadow052017

I carry a lot of darkness around. Some of the shadow is the result of past life experience and some of it’s from genetics. This is unfortunate for me and the people around me, so I have been working on reducing or managing that dark streak since I was about ten. I still have a long way to go, but the good news is that sometimes I make a little improvement.

Story Fuel

The other good news is that the darkness fuels my writing, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. My first novel*, even though it’s funny (I hope), is set in Hell, and filled with monsters and violence. Even Heaven turns out to be less than it’s cracked up to be. Those elements, even though couched in slapstick silliness, come from that black crack in my heart. My second novel, now in progress, is a dark thing. The world it’s set in is hostile. People use and abuse each other and take it for business as usual. That setting, those characters, the story, all drink from the same vein of darkness I haul around.

Maybe it’s time to turn off the lights and venture into the shadows.

Light

Lest I dig a complete ditch of despair, I have to pause and observe that I have more than a shadow land inside. There’s love, sensitivity, humor, determination, compassion—all kinds of good stuff—in my interior landscape. It’s these bright aspects that enable me to turn that rage and depression into art (such as it is). The creation of art, in turn, makes my life brighter.

Ideas from the Shadows

But it’s still the dark side that spins up most of my ideas. I think this is because conflict is what drives stories, and you don’t find conflict at the bright end of the rainbow; you find it along the path of the rainbow while you’re fighting to get to the blasted end.

Are you hard up for a story idea? Or for the next turn in your story’s path? Maybe it’s time to turn off the lights and venture into the shadows.

Happy writing (be it dark or light),

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

 

 

 

 

*Novel #1: Trouble Spots

Follow the Crazy Brick Road

brickroad

A Disorderly Day

Yesterday, the day got away from me. I was going to write, meditate, make lasagna, do some family insurance paperwork, fill the birdfeeders, bake some brownies and write this blog post. Instead, I wound up running a set of errands and going on a garden tour with my wife. Very little on my lengthy to-do list got done.

If your story’s taking an unexpected turn, that probably means it’s alive.

I could have gotten frustrated about this change of plans—in fact, I came very close, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided to just go with the day and see where it took me. As a result, I had one of the most pleasant Saturdays I’ve had in some time.

Isn’t this a Writing Blog?

There’s a so-what here for novel writing, whether you write with a plan or by the seat of your pants.

Sometimes, the story is going to get away from you.

Your characters are going to do that apocryphal thing where they take on lives of their own and start doing what they want to do, or you’ll realize you’ve written yourself into a corner, or you’ll realize you’ve got a tiger by the tail when you’d been going along thinking you had a tame bunny by the floppy ears.

The bunny-become-tiger thing is happening to me with my current novel. I thought I had a nice, tidy idea about two sister getting separated and it’s turned into this juggernaut with monsters, assassins, a huge geographical landscape and a little magic. The prospect of corralling all this material is not a little daunting.

Be Grateful

Yet, when something like this happens to you, I don’t think it’s time to throw up your hands in defeat or disgust; rather, it’s time to throw them up in gratitude. If your story’s taking an unexpected turn, that probably means it’s alive. The thing to do is roll with it, revising your plan or changing your pants as needed. If it turns out badly, well, that’s what rewrites are for.

Just follow the crazy brick road, using your best judgment as a sturdy walking staff. It might turn out to be one of your best journeys ever.

Happy Writing,

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

 

Buy a book! It’s cheap!

Trouble Spots - High Resolution

Why I Write

joy2Joy.

That’s why.

Because joy is different from happiness.

Happiness is that wonderful, fizzy feeling you have when things are pretty much going your way, you’re doing what you like, and you’re smart enough to be grateful for it.

Joy is a sense that the grounding of things, the long-term outcome, the big picture, are whole and positive.

Happiness is great, but it tends to fade in and out, like an iffy signal on A.M. radio. Joy, on the other hand, hangs around.

When the prose stinks, the characters fall flat, the plot meanders into ever deeper and more stupid places, writing brings me joy, even though I may not be so happy right then.

So, I persist, and when happiness shows up to accompany joy, well, that’s a great day.

I wish you many days of both.

Cheers,

Carson

 

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Check out Wishie. That’s joy, right there.  

 

Small Sales = Big Disappointment? Nah

journeyNotDestinationWhen I self-published my first novel, Trouble Spots, last October, I did so with high hopes—well, hopes. Okay, a little. A glimmer, for sure. My feelings were mixed, truth be told. One the one hand, I thought, “Hey, I wrote this for fun and for love; I’ll publish for the same reasons, and to heck with sales.” On the other, the little gremlin in my soul that ever longs for glory was whispering “Oh, let this be enormous! Let it go viral! Let it be big in Japan!”

You can guess which happened. So far, sales have been slim, limited to friends and relations kind enough to give my maiden effort a chance. I am truly grateful to those folks, and I truly hope they enjoy the book, either as literature, a doorstop, or a handy sheaf of bacon-grease blotters. I’m not moving a lot of units, digital or dead tree.

Obnoxious Commercial Break: If you want to change the situation, check out the Kindle copy, the CreateSpace (paper) copy on Amazon.com, or visit other e-book stores like iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. Now, back to our show.

When I ask myself how I feel about the low sales, I still have mixed feelings: “Wow! I did it! That was so much fun! Let’s go for round two!” vs. “Nobody really likes my novel. My writing and storytelling are appallingly amateurish and not worth anybody’s time. I should give up now.”

I’m happy to report that, after a settling period, my feelings are ninety percent the former and only ten percent the latter. Sure, I’d like the world to pat me on the head by buying my fiction, but if it doesn’t, that’s fine. Here’s why the whole adventure was worthwhile:

  • I met the great folks in my writing group.
  • I became a better reader of novels.
  • I learned I can set a long-term goal and persevere until I reach it.
  • I learned that writing what you want, in the way you want, is joyful.
  • I got to spend time with my characters, who I love.
  • I gained increased confidence in my fiction-writing abilities.
  • I had boatloads of fun.

There’s a lot more I could do to increase sales, I guess—marketing-y stuff—but I just am not into making time for that right now. I have other priorities, like my family and my day job. Actions (or lack thereof) speak louder than words, so I guess there’s my certain answer: If I was really wrapped up in sales figures, I’d be spending lots more time trying to increase them. Making fiction for the sake of making fiction is still the way to go for me. That could change, but for now, I’m good with it.

Whatever conclusion you come to regarding the importance of sales, I hope your writing dreams come true.

Cheers,

Carson

Remember! Leaving a comment or logging a like builds the magic to get Wishie some boxers!

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Writing Action

actionAction, Baby!

When I’m writing a novel, I always write the kind of thing that will keep me amused and engaged. As it happens, I’m amused and engaged by action scenes, so you’ll find a lot of them in my work (which you should immediately purchase, of course). I got a nice note from one of my writing group buddies, who bravely suffers through drafts of my latest whatever, saying that he thought the action scenes in the last portion of novel #2 (The Farthest Hour) were quite the thrill-makers.

I glowed for a few minutes, and when that settled down, there being no work or household crisis to deal with, my mind wandered to thoughts of why the action scenes were working, at least for this pal of mine, who pens some corking passages of mayhem, himself. (Bagger Island and its sequels, by Denis Hearn – highly recommended.)

Stakes

The lead character in the scene, normally your protagonist, needs a good reason to get out of the easy chair and get into action, and that means something serious must be at stake. In a recent scene from Farthest, the protagonist’s best friend is strapped to a cross and about to be flayed alive. She doesn’t want him to die, much less suffer such a horrible death. She’s launched into action because of the stakes.

Drama

The cardinal characteristic of an action scene is – duh! – action. It can’t be just any action, though. It’s got to be dramatic enough to draw the reader in, and it’s got to move the story forward. Luckily for me, my lead happens to be preternaturally good at accurately throwing things, and is also carrying a set of throwing knives. From across a city square, she flings one of the knives and nails the would-be flayer in the neck, taking him down and giving her friend at least a temporary reprieve. So, that’s one down: it’s dramatic.

Story Movement

But what about moving the story? If the scene just stopped there, not so much, but it doesn’t. The sudden crack in the apparently total power of the authorities breeds controversy in the crowd. Some wanted the flaying to happen, some didn’t; now they start yelling about it, and the next thing you know, there’s a riot. Best friend and his fellow prisoners are evacuated and the protagonist, is identified as the knife-wielder and arrested. Now she is hauled off into the belly of the beast she was just busy resisting. If that’s not plot movement, I’ll drink a beer. Hell, I’ll drink two. You’re buying.

Physical Movement

Another hallmark of the action scene is physical movement. In the scene I’ve been talking about, the protagonist not only throws a knife, but works her way through a thick crowd, rides in a rickshaw, and gets tied up and thrown onto a horse. Her friend also spends some time tied and mounted, and is then taken down, tied to a cross, and forced by survival instinct to do a lot of useless struggling. The flayer parades around with his knife and actually starts the job before getting distance-stabbed. By the end, the cops are high-tailing it out of there, leaving a square boiling over with rioting civilians. You get the idea.

Getting the Knack

The best way I know of (my knowledge being, admittedly, limited) to get the hang of writing action is to sort of marinate yourself in it. Read a lot of books with action—fiction and non-fiction. (Ever read Into Thin Air? Wow. Watch action-packed movies and TV shows. Read some more! Engage in a bit of action yourself, if you can, to the best of your ability; get some martial arts instruction, go mountain biking, walk the dog on a new route, whatever you can manage.

Most important of all, start writing action as soon as you start marinating, or even before then. As with everything else in life, practice makes you better.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Carson

Writing Prompt: Write an action scene starring Wishie the Troll and leave it in the comments!

wishie-cropped-for-090916

Tools for Writers: Keeping a Daily Average

I’m a bit of a geek, so I enjoy playing with spreadsheets sometimes. If you’re similarly afflicted, you might be interested in something I’ve come up to track my productivity over time.

It’s easy to track your words written per day and watch the total as it gets bigger and bigger on a line chart. It’s fun, too, and I find it every encouraging to see that squiggle reach a little more skyward each day. (Except on editing days; then it can take dip. Feh.)

Wonderful as it is, the word total graph is always going to be moving up, overall. It doesn’t really tell you how effective your writing time is. I decided a good way to check that would be to keep a running average per day, based on all the writing days I’ve managed to accumulate for a specific project.

Here’s how to do that…

  1. Create a spreadsheet (I use MS Excel, but you can use whatever you like) with columns for Date (bet you can guess this one), Words (cumulative total), Written (words written today), Notes (for whatever comments), and Avg (for the average). It looks more or less like this:

columns-for-avg

  1. Set up the Written column so the word total from yesterday is subtracted from the world total for today, to give you a total for today. For example, in the illustration above, 17,651 words total for 8/10 subtracted from 18,138 words total for 8/11 give me 487 words for 8/11. You might have some in-line notes or something that keeps this from being exact, but the number will still be, as we say in the day-job world, “directionally correct.” In other words, close enough to give you an idea how you’re doing.
  2. Set up the Avg column so that the first cell in the formula stays the same and the second one increments when you drag or copy the formula to the cell below it. I know, that’s clear as a London fog, so let me break it down:
    1. Leave the first Avg cell, E2, blank, since there’s nothing to average yet.
    2. In E3, set the formula as “=AVERAGE($C$2:C3).”
      1. The $ signs keep the “C2” from turning into a “C3” and hosing your formula when you move it down to the next cell.
      2. The numeric value in the plain “C3” is going to increment by one when you move it copy it to the next cell down, which is what you want.
    3. Every day your write:
      1. Record your total words in Words.
      2. Copy or drag the formula in Written down to the current row.
      3. Copy or drag the formula in Avg down to the current row.
  1. After you’ve got a few rows of data:
    1. Select the data in the Date column.
    2. Keeping the Date data selected, also select the data in Avg. (To do this in MS Excel for Windows, you hold down the Ctrl key while selecting. If you use something different… Google it if you don’t know.)
    3. Using the Insert menu, select the line graph from the Charts section, pick the one you like best and click on it.
  2. You’re done! If all went well, you’ll get a chart that looks like this:

avg-chart

I can use this chart now to see how I’m doing, productivity-wise. Looks like I’ve been going pretty steadily at 5-600 words per writing day since September 2016, which is where I like to be. I can also tell that I had a higher average when school was out and I had more time in the mornings, without the chaos of getting people ready for school.

So, there you go. Go on and geek out. May your averages be high.

Cheers,

Carson

 

Please leave a comment, and maybe the Good Fairy will bring Wishie some shoes.

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Distractions

distractionsDistractions are all over, and they make life particularly hard for the part-time novelist. You’ve only got so much time, a limited time, to devote to your craft, so you don’t want to fritter it away on other things. Still, it’s easy to let your eyes wander from the page to the clock, or to social networking, the latest political debacle or the newest toy in the chest.

I have a hard time with this. I write in an office filled with distractions. There’s a music system, the day-job computer, guitars, microwave, electronic photo frame, iPad, art equipment… No wonder my attention wanders.

The obvious solution appears to be for me to create a space in which there is nothing but me and my laptop, but in my beloved suburban ranch, which I share with my beloved suburban family, my crowded little office is the only option for solitude.

Also contributing to the problem of distraction is my own tendency toward inattention, or, rather, paying attention to many different things in short bursts. I don’t know if an expert would diagnose me with ADD or ADHD, but the inattention thing is certainly present.

So, what am I going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, for that matter?

I’ve come up with something that I think is working, at least for me. It’s a combination of disciplining myself to pay strict attention and going with the flow of my inattention. Here’s the deal…

First, I accept that I’m distractible, at least at this point in my life. That clears the decks of guilt and all that useless garbage.

I get some of my distractions out of the way up front, when I sit down to write. Email, making sure my coffee is hot enough (remember that microwave?), etc.

Now I minimize distractions. I turn the music system off, unless it’s playing white noise or some specific, spacey sounds I often write with. I turn the picture frame off.

At this point, I may set a timer or not, depending on my inclination for the day. The timer sets my period of strict focus. If I don’t feel like setting a timer, I rely on my gut to tell me when to look up (this is riskier, but it works for me if I insist on a strong gut feeling, not just any old antsy notion).

I fire up the old manuscript and get to work. I bend over the keyboard and focus completely on the story and the words (well, 90% — I’m not perfect).

When the timer or my gut tell me to stop, I stop and indulge a distraction. I keep this time short! Five minutes max. A timer is particularly useful here.

After the break, I go back to focused writing. I repeat the writing-break-writing cycle until my time is up.

In all honesty, I must admit that this approach decreases my words-per-day output, but then, I didn’t get into the writing business to produce a certain number of words per day. I got into it for the joy of it, and giving my distractible nature a chance to flex increases that to no end.

Happy writing!

wishie-cropped-for-090916Please leave a comment, or Wishie the troll might climb into your bedroom one night and stand beside your head until you wake up. It’s quite a shock when you turn your head and see him there, believe me.

 

Cheers,

Carson

P.S. My first novel, Trouble Spots, is available in hard copy or Kindle soft-copy on Amazon, and it’s coming soon to other outlets.