A Writing Environment for the Attention-Span Challenged

When I was in high school, I had a friend who could focus like a laser on his work no matter what was going on around him. If an IED has gone off next to him he would have just scratched his ear (assuming he still had one).

I often wish I had that guy’s ability to concentrate. Alas, I’m a member of the “Attention Deficit… oooh… shiny…” club and have trouble enough mustering the mental presence to put my socks on, much less do anything like homework, or, say, writing.

Even so, there’s hope. ADHD people’s brains naturally set at a somewhat lower level of stimulation than average. To help bring their brains up the average level, these folks instinctively engage in forms of self-stimulation (Hey! Get your mind out of the gutter!) like fidgeting, singing, or jumping rapidly from one task to the other, quite possibly without finishing things. That means I can do the same.

Back when I was growing up, we were too busy fighting off saber-tooth tigers and pursuing wooly mammoths to know about ADHD or ADD, but I’m pretty sure I fell into the category for many years. Even today, I am pretty distractible.

So, I prefer some particular elements in my writing environment. If you’re attention-span-challenged like I am, maybe some of these will be helpful to you.

Oh, but did I ever tell you about the time I was at the beach doing yoga, and my cheap swim trunks were wet, and it turned out they were translucent, and… Oh, sorry. Must… con… cen… trate. Whew.

Background noise. I can’t write with actual music going on and Heaven help me if there’s a TV playing, but some kind of ambient sound helps me focus. I often write in coffee shops and the buzz of conversation provides a stimulating sonic backdrop. If I’m writing at home in my basement office, which used to be the laundry and utility room, the hum of the HVAC equipment and the dehumidifier keep me alert. Of course, there’s always the option of putting on a recording of white noise, or something similar, like forest sounds.

Visual interest. I tend to look up and around a good bit when I’m writing; it gives me a little shot of brain-stim. Given this proclivity, environments with something to look at are best for me. My cubie at the day job is plastered with pictures and such, should I decide to spend a lunch hour of writing there. Coffee shops again, are great because they are designed for visual interest and have the added benefit of all the foot traffic going back and forth. In my home office, I’ve got my paintings on the walls and a couple of crazy-colorful homemade furniture pieces, which include my writing desk.

Comfort, but not too much. I have reached that point in middle age where I love my easy chair. Really. I would love to write in it, but I fall asleep whenever I try. Sigh. Instead, I go for seating that will support my lower back and not be too hard on my old bottom. Some kind of support for my arms is also desirable. I find my cubie is best in this regard, since it has good office furniture designed to accommodate someone chained there for long periods. I have a good office task chair at home, too, and I built my writing desk to accommodate long stints at the keyboard. Coffee shops vary in furniture comfort and quality, but they have the best coffee.

My correctly oriented head. The three preceding paragraphs describe preferences, but, in truth, they are not necessities. What is necessary for me is a brain with the right contents. A good attitude, a willingness to work, self-discipline and a story idea or two are what really make the writing flow. When I can bring these qualities to the keyboard, I can write even in a poor environment. It may not go as well, but it goes, and that’s the great thing.

Writing Lessons from Reading: “God’s Demon” by Wayne Barlowe

The author of God’s Demon, Wayne Barlowe, is an artist by trade; look him up on Amazon and books of his art are mostly what you’ll find. His novel was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provided subject matter for many of Barlowe’s paintings before the novel came along.

The main story arc concerns Sargatanas, a fallen seraph, now a resident of Hell, who decides to rebel against Beelzebub, who’s running the show, and regain himself a place in Heaven. The final score: Beelzebub zero, Sargatanas one ticket to Paradise. It’s a beautifully written book, fully imagined with many a subplot, character and challenge to keep you turning pages until the end.

As always, when I read I’m hoping to learn something new or reinforce something I’ve learned already. Here are a few gems of that ilk from God’s Demon.

Use metaphor and simile in description.

Adjectives are fine, but in the company of metaphor and simile they can be great. Here’s a sample: “From their altitude the world looked as it always had. Vast olive-brown plains, like sheets of skin, rended and folded, were cut by flowing, incandescent rivers of lava and pocked by scattered outposts, pincushioned with fiery-tipped towers.” The adjectives here, like “incandescent” and “pocked” are vivid, but the simile “like sheets of skin” and the metaphorical “pincushioned” are what make the scene pop.

Use an approachable observer to bring an intimidating character down to earth.

Sargatanas the seraph is larger than life, to say the least, at least twice as tall as a human being, with facial and bodily features that shift at will or with mood and a vision for turning upside down the established order of one-third of creation. It would be all too easy to make such a character pompous, distant or even grotesque. Enter Eligor, captain of Sargatanas’ Flying Guards.

The Flying Guards are Sargatanas’s personal bodyguard, so Eligor has a close professional relationship with the demon. Sargatanas also acts as mentor to Eligor, so there is a personal relationship between them as well. Eligor’s admiration and fondness for his superior comes through in his viewpoint, drawing the reader closer to this imposing main character.

Here’s an example of Eligor observing Sargatanas: “Sargatanas went about his tasks with a preternatural intensity that bordered on the obsessive. He never tired of directing the large and small matters of state. It was, Eligor guessed, his way of not thinking about the reality of their situation.” Through Eligor’s view of Sargatanas, we see not only the big boss demon, but the troubled soul as well. Barlowe uses this device throughout the book and it works beautifully.

Use artful foreshadowing.

One of the characters in this book, Semjaza the Watcher, seems for most of the book to be just part of the scenery, a way of showing how awful Hell is. A titan imprisoned in Hell long before Sargatanas, Beelzebub and the gang ever got there, Semjaza lies beneath Beelzebub’s city of Dis, making a scary racket once in a while. You first hear about him 17% through the Kindle edition (“…this giant Watcher, whom few had ever seen…”) and he doesn’t come up again until the 72% mark (“The Watcher had been unusually restless these past few weeks…). Then at the 91% mark he plays a key role in the resolution of the story, which comes as a surprise but is completely plausible, thanks to the foreshadowing that went before.

Thanks for reading. See you next time around!

Forced not to Write!

Handcuffs and KeyboardI try to be regular in my writing habits, such as they are. One hour a day, five days a week for fiction is working pretty well with the rest of my responsibilities right now. I’m able to produce without going crazy. Still, there are times when life interferes and I am prevented from key-pecking on my usual schedule or at all.

Just recently I had an entire week in which my usual writing time was taken up by unusual activity in my day job. Looking back on it, I can see I went through the five stages of grief described by  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. I can also see a couple of lessons in the experience.

Monday Morning–Denial: I told myself I’d still be able to stick to my regular lunch-hour writing schedule. Wrong! The demands of the work completely scrambled my somewhat orderly routine and made mid-day writing impossible.

Monday Afternoon and Evening–Anger: I bemoaned my fate, sulked at work, bitched to my family and was generally put out about the whole thing. It didn’t help matters and in fact made me feel worse.

Tuesday Morning–Bargaining: “Okay, I’ll trade an hour of sleep a night for an hour of writing,” I told myself. This just wasn’t realistic—I need a certain amount of sleep to function effectively and without biting the head off everyone around me. It’s not a discipline thing, it’s a genetic predisposition. The bargain fell through.

Tuesday Afternoon and Evening–Depression: This one was easy, since I’m kind of melancholic anyway. I went into a zombie-like trance of funk, certain my project would go completely off track, sure I’d never get the zing back. I was doomed!

Wednesday Morning—Acceptance: I finally realized that since there was no fixing the situation to my liking, I might as well go with the flow. After all, my philosophy for this project is, in part, to remember that it’s not the be-all, end-all, whoop-tee-doo major deal of the earth, that I’m not in a hurry, that I’m writing for my own pleasure first and foremost. Recalling that intention made me feel loads better and reassured me that the non-attached way I have been approaching the project is, for me, the best one.

Despite the roseate glow of acceptance, I still felt like writing—a lot. The feeling built in intensity over the week. It was something like the excitement I felt as a kid when Christmas day was near—it built with every passing sunset. When Saturday rolled around and I was at last able to get back to the story, all that pent-up energy exploded onto the page. It was great! I don’t know if I wrote anything good, but I wrote a lot of it and I had a wonderful time. The energy and joy lasted for several days more—what a gift.

So, thanks to a long week of enforced non-writing, I learned a couple of things:

  • Writing for its own sake works. It’s an application of the principle that the best way to prepare for future moments is to do your best with the present one.
  • Enforced time off, once accepted, can be a time of building energy for the writing ahead.

Okay, that’s enough. Got to get ready for work tomorrow…

Choosing the Right Word for the Situation

Word MagnetsAt my advanced age, I am still laboring under the impression that, I was a pretty darn good college poet. It’s more likely that a few of my poems passed the sniff test and the rest stunk, but I’ll retain my illusion, thank you. What I do know for reality is that I loved picking out the individual words for those poems and found that the exercise of poetry made my prose writing better.

Poetry taught me that the better your individual word choices, the better your writing. That might seem like a statement worthy of a “well, duh” response, but I submit to you that some writing sings and some talks in a monotone, and a lot of the difference is word choice.

So, here are a few thoughts on choosing words.

Audience. Who are you writing for? Adults? Kids? Women? Men? One writer who does a great job of taking audience into account is J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter novels increase their language sophistication with every book as Harry gets older. Or compare lines from the beginning of “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara to a few from the beginning of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

From the former: “They are rebels and volunteers. They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped. It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.” The words are mostly factual and sharp-edged. The closest you get to “pretty words” are “unity” and “disunion.” It’s my guess this book was originally aimed mainly at men, although with a Pulitzer prize to its credit I’m sure a lot of people of both genders read it.

From the latter: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” The words are soft, lyrical—“delicate,” “aristocrat,” and “florid.” Mitchell is writing a historical romance, probably originally intended primarily for women, although it has garnered readers everywhere.

Meaning. Obviously, you want a word that means the right thing, but there are different opportunities with synonyms. You could say, for instance, “The starving dogs fought over the orts from the master’s table.” On the other hand, you could say, “The starving dogs fought over the scraps from the master’s table.”

“Ort” is a little-used word for a bit of food left from a meal. If you guess your audience will be full of people who like unusual words, or who might already be familiar with “orts,” or if you just plain want to be obscure, “orts” might be your ticket. “Scraps,” “bits,” “morsels,” or “chunks,” might be good enough, though. I mean, really… orts?

Context. What setting is the word used in? Who is using it? If you’re writing a tough-guy novel about an army general, he might say “Let’s start a war.” If you’re writing something about college professor, he might say “Let’s instigate a conflict.” If you’re describing a mountain outcrop as an inviting destination, you might use words like “majestic,” or “challenging.” If you’re describing the same outcrop as an obstacle, it might be “flinty” or “barren.”

Sound. Sometimes you need a word that falls into the ear the right way. That has a lot to do with the words surrounding it, but let’s take a couple of words on their own. Say your character is taking after somebody’s car with a sledgehammer. “Smash” sounds more like the action itself, whereas “demolish” doesn’t sound like the action and actually distances you from it.

“Smash” winds up with that “sm” sound—you can almost hear the hammer on the backswing—and then down it comes with “ash!” It’s a single, pointed syllable.

With “demolish,” the three syllables all have softer sounds. With “de” maybe the character is swinging the hammer back and forth a bit. With “mo” I don’t get much of an image at all, just a hushing—maybe the character puts the hammer down because it’s heavy. And “lish,” while it gives you the same “sh” as “smash,” is sapped of power by the gentle “li” sound and the preceding two syllables. So, do you want the reader to have that immediacy or not? Maybe if the scene is actually happening, “smash” is the best choice, but if the scene is part of a dream sequence, perhaps the more distant sound of “demolish” would work better.

I could go on, but I think I’ll spare you the agony. Just remember that choosing the right word for the right moment in your writing can make the difference between singing and squawking.