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!

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

 

 

 

 

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.
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Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

Overcoming Obstacles in Fiction Writing and Life

02-21-13 cellWarNotebooksI’m late to this party, but I’m going to join it, anyway.

Earlier this year, Duolit (selfpublishingteam.com) posted an article about about Julie. Julie is the author of the the Cell War Notebooks, a chronicle of her battle with cervical cancer. Julie lost her battle, leaving behind a daughter, Luka. The book is still being published and all proceeds go to Luka.

The folks at Duolit proposed that on January 31st, its community of readers write posts about overcoming an obstacle, include a link to the Cell War Notebooks, and publicize the post via social media.

I have an old friend who is suffering from cervical cancer right now. I don’t know how it will turn out and I can’t do much about it, but I can do this.

First, the link to the book: http://amzn.to/W17WN4

Now, about overcoming an obstacle…

One of the chief obstacles I find among the aspiring novelists in my writing group is time, or, rather, lack thereof. One friend has an invalid wife to care for, in addition to his day job. Another just had his first baby (with the help of his wife, of course). Another has care of her young children. We’ve all got responsibilities of one kind or another that make fitting the writing in difficult.

How to overcome this obstacle? We sacrifice something else. In my own case, I sacrifice taking a normal lunch break to relax, socialize, or catch up on work. Instead, I get away to a coffee shop, the library, or an empty conference room and spend about an hour writing. My friend with the ill wife does the same thing.

One member of our group tells a tale of when her three children were very young. She would lock herself in the bathroom for short periods and write in a legal pad braced on the toilet seat while the kids shouted for her outside. Many writers carry their work with them and write in snatches whenever the opportunity arises—at stop lights, at baseball practice, while waiting at the dentist’s office.

In the past, I despaired of writing because I was convinced I had to do it in blocks of at least two hours, so I could get warmed up and then produce a satisfactory amount. When I finally let go of my perfectionist ways and started doing what I could, instead of what some false ideal told me I should do, the creative dam broke and now I’m three-fourths and 80,000 words into my first novel’s first draft.

Before I could find time, I had to give up and attitude, an unreasonable belief, that writing had to be thus-and-so. If you’re unable to find time for your art (even if it’s not writing fiction), step back and check yourself for such an illusory barrier. If you can identify it, you can work to give it up or work around it. Then your creative work will take off. It might go more slowly, but it will go.

Finding time for writing is nowhere near the obstacle cervical cancer is. I’m grateful I don’t have to face such a thing. May all those suffering from serious illness or issues similarly daunting find healing and peace. May all those seeking time for their art overcome their blocking attitudes and find the time they need.

Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

Observation for Fiction Writing – Lift Your Head!

Observation signI’m in the Phoenix airport, waiting on a flight (what else would I be doing there?) and it seems like the perfect time for a blog entry. It also seems like the perfect time for a nap, but I’m thinking of you, dear reader, so here we go.

Today I am reminded of the importance of observation. Airports are great places for watching people and planes are great places for chatting with total strangers, should you have a chatty seatmate.

I am a sort of shy, introverted person – which probably explains why I choose to spend so much of my free time alone in a room or coffee shop, pecking at a keyboard, so usually when I have a chatty seatmate on a flight I try to bring the flow of small talk to an end as quickly as politely possible.

But this day was different. My seatmate on the flight I just left was a little blonde woman with sloping shoulders from bad posture and a shortage of front teeth. Her expression mixed depression with confusion, so, ungenerous swine that I am, I leaped to categorize her as a nut.

She began to chat and I was all ready to go into shut-her-down mode when I thought, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a character to observe here, or something to learn. So I chatted back.

It turned out she was travelling to her mother’s home in Ohio because said mother had just passed away. She had pulled herself together on short notice and hopped on a plane. So there’s your depression. She hadn’t flown since 9/11, she said. So there’s your confusion. Then she talked about job troubles and moving west from Atlanta, her brother’s shortcomings in handling the situation with their mother, living in Rio de Janero as a teenager and working for a Denmark-based company, to name a few. How much I would have missed if I had blown her off!

It just goes to show you that it’s important to lift your head up from the keyboard on a regular basis and observe – heck, even engage with – the great big world. And I don’t mean just people – birds, buildings, grass, rocks, storefronts, flowers, garbage, everything – is waiting to plant its seed in your creative little brain. I’ve been neglecting to do this and I’m glad I broke loose of my blinders today.

I also like to think I gave a grieving woman somebody to talk to when she needed it. I hope so, anyway.

Keeping the Muse Atop the Monitor: Reprise

Hi, there. It’s a holiday week, so here’s a reprint!

Greek musesI tend to get obsessive over stuff.

Like writing.

If you were loose enough with your time to read the first post of this blog, you may recall I said stuff like, “I’m treating this as fun, for its own sake” and “I’m taking my time. It gets finished when it gets finished.”

For a while, all was well. I just kicked back in my chair, put my fingers on the old keyboard and told myself the story. Great fun!

But then the gremlins of perfectionism, hurry and ambition started climbing up on top of the monitor with my muse. At first I thought it was just because my muse is pretty cute and they wanted to put the moves on her. Also, no such luck. They were there to drag me down, just like they’ve always been.

“Don’t you dare leave this page until it’s better than Hemmingway! And no, Steinbeck’s not good enough,” said Perfectionism, adjusting his twisted boxers.

Hurry jumped up and down and shouted, “Four hours a week is not enough! You need to be cranking out more words per day or you’ll only have one novel finished before you’re dead! Maybe not even that!”

“This is how you’re going to show ‘em,Carson. Anybody whoever said you were less than 100% fantastic, once this baby hits the best-seller list, boy, are they going to feel small. And that’s what we want, right?” Ambition lit a cigar and blew the smoke in Muse’s face.

Day after day they kept up this nattering until I started to believe it. Poor muse was reduced to sitting next to the keyboard, having been shoved off the monitor altogether. She was miffed, of course, and spent more time sulking than helping my story along.

It’s easy to describe now, but as it was going on, I wasn’t fully aware what was happening. It’s a slippery slope one slides down into the slough of obsession.

Then, fortune smiled. I have the chance to talk to a good friend about the work and how it wasn’t going well, how it was starting to feel like an obligation instead of a lark. She wisely helped me stop talking about it and visualize what was happening. That’s when I really saw the gremlins, along with poor Muse, and realized what was going on.

I realized that my first-novel project is subject to the same tension that informs the rest of my life—the desire for spontaneous freedom versus the desire for rigid order. If the two get out of balance, it’s bad news—too much freedom and nothing gets done; too much order and creativity goes to hell.

So, what’s a wannabe novelist to do? Just three things, I think. First, remain aware of those gremlins and what they’re up to. Second, choose to keep the balance tipped in favor of spontaneity and freedom. Third, make a conscious decision at the start of every writing session to do the first two. That should keep Muse on top of the monitor, where she belongs.

I could work on a clever closing, but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll just say I hope this is helpful. How’s that for spontaneity and freedom?

No More Posting the Draft

Rubber stamp marked draft

For a long time, I was posting regular excerpts of my nascent novel, Thin Spots, in this space. More lately, I’ve had the draft up on Wattpad and invited you kind readers to view it there.

Well, not anymore. I took the draft down from Wattpad a few days ago and am pretty sure I’ll keep it off, because, as I’ve been working through the draft lately, the idea of thrusting version 1.0 into the public eye has seemed more and more lame.

First of all, it’s a first draft, full of errors, from typos to plot holes you could fly a zeppelin through. The more I think about it, the less I want that to be the first impression people have of my writing. It’s better, I think, to wait until the thing is fully baked and then cast it upon the waters.

Secondly, and more important, is that having the draft out there started me worrying about how many people were reading it, why or why not and how I could get more people to give it a look. I was slowly slipping away from writing the very thing I wanted, for the enjoyment of the thing, and into writing to please everybody else. As I’ve said here before, that could be the death of the process for me.

Third is the problem of major changes. I have revamped the first three or four chapters and some of the changes ripple through the rest of the book. Do I make all those changes now and re-post all those chapters, or leave that until later and hope readers understand when, say, characters who were around in chapter six (pre-major change) aren’t around in chapter 45 (post-major change) when clearly they should be, at least as far as the reader knows? It gets messy and, frankly, I’d rather spend the little spare time I have writing than reorganizing everything, writing catch-ups and what not.

My only worry is that there are a few people out there that really were following the draft and would like to continue. If there are any such people (this may be looking for the lost tribes of Israel), and you are one of them, please write me at coolcarsoncraig@gmail.com and I’ll put you on a mailing list.

Half-Baked Planning

Half baked bread loaves being put into an ovenNote: In case you care, I have removed the rough draft of Thin Spots from Wattpad. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Having made it more than halfway through the draft of novel number one, despite having many other demands on my time, has made me a holy-rolling believer in planning your novel before you start writing it. I have my little setup of manuscript, scene sketches and fix sheet all constructed and waiting for me every time I sit down at the keyboard. The manuscript says “start here.” I look at my scene sketch and I start there. When I run across something that will need cleaning up later, I note it on the fix sheet.

Planning is a beautiful thing, but, I wonder, can you do too much?

I just finished writing a chapter that’s long, rambling and weak. It’s a prime candidate for the rewrite operating table, and I think the problem is Stebbins, a gladiator who shows up earlier in the story. Because Stebbins wasn’t there.

It’s a battle scene. Colin (the lead) winds up there unexpectedly and hides, because he’s injured. Then he comes out of hiding and meets… not Stebbins, but another guy named Calley. See, I was writing along, Colin came into the open and all at once Stebbins, who was not scheduled to appear, popped into my head. I could see Colin spotting his friend, being amazed and overjoyed.

This vision of the Colin-Stebbins reunion was powerful and required some consideration. If I went with it, Stebbins’ role in the planned story would change drastically. It would also greatly hork up Calley’s planned role. And I liked my plan. It was a good plan, and it was already there.

To stick with the plan or change things–that was the question.

My point here – and I do have one, as Ellen Degeneres says – is that I was in the midst of a good problem. Making decisions like this one lies at, or at least near, the heart of the fictioneer’s craft. It’s also a huge part of the fun.

If I had planned each scene in the novel down to the last pinhead, I’d be far less likely to land in such a delightfully uncomfortable spot. I’d be much too wed to the plan due to all the trouble I had put into it. I’d also find it much easier take the already mapped out path of least resistance.

Instead, since I have a plan that’s more general in nature, I get to make writing decisions on the fly. I am creating and solving fiction problems all the time, while at the same time not constantly trying to figure out the next big milestone in the story.

So, yes, for me, at this point as a nascent novelist, half-baked planning is best. I have the broad brush strokes. It’s filling in the detail along the way that keeps me turned on.

What’s your stand on planning? A lot or a little? In-between? Let me know in a comment.

Qualities of a Great Book

A display of booksI was at a birthday party the other night and got reacquainted with an old friend of my wife’s, a really excellent writer I’m going to call A.J. for purposes of this post. A.J. was very happy about having sold a nonfiction book to one of the big publishers. Given how difficult that gauntlet can be to run, I was pretty impressed. I thought later about how he had done it and some lessons revealed themselves.

He coped with his situation. A.J. was a newspaper writer for a long time. That business being what it is these days, he was laid off. Rather than lying down and bemoaning his situation, he started freelancing and eventually found his way to this book. Lesson: Cope with the situation that’s in the way of your writing. Maybe it’s time, or money, or relationships, or something else. Figure out a workaround.

He remembered a contact. A.J. sold his book with the help of an agent he had met twenty years before. Lesson: Keep up with people who can help your writing career, be they editors, bloggers, or just interested friends. You never know who might lend a hand.

He used an agent. A.J. told me he wouldn’t have had a prayer without his agent. Lesson: If you’re going the traditional publishing route, get an agent first.

He wrote a killer book synopsis. The synopsis A.J. wrote was about 20,000 words long, which was, like a ‘60’s miniskirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Lesson: An great synopsis will help sell your book, so put in the effort.

He had a fantastic idea. A.J.’s book idea was derived from an experience he’d had while working at the newspaper. I’ll enumerate its virtues in a list, but first, the lesson. Lesson: Have a wonderful book idea with all the concepts below.

  • Have plenty of conflict. In A.J.’s book, individuals and communities square off against each other in a conflict of deeply held values. You can feel it crackle just when he talks about it.
  • Have a satisfying resolution. The ending of A.J.’s book is moving and it ties up all the loose ends, so it satisfies the emotions and the intellect.
  • Populate your story with interesting people. This story is awash with character possibilities. Some are on one side of the value questions, some on the other and some stand around the middle. There are differences in economic and educational backgrounds, and stark differences in the way children are raised. The characters move this baby along.
  • Feature characters that change. The resolution of this story requires that some of the characters change dramatically. Observing that metamorphosis makes for great reading.
  • Use an engaging setting. The setting is rural America, but some of the features of it are unlike any most of us have ever experienced. Those aspects of the setting you are more likely to have experienced are viewed from a rarely seen angle.

The ideas listed here aren’t the complete list of everything needed for a great book, of course, but it’s a good idea to put them into practice if you can. I’m certainly going to try, and I’m going to keep up with A.J.’s progress and that of his book.

If you’ve got any more ideas for improving the writing process or the product, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Ten Points of Gratitude for a Writer

Billboard printed with "be grateful"

Note: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

This being the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, I am mindful of the particular things that have blessed me as a writer over my life. To God and human, my humble thanks.

  1. I’m thankful for the first person, who, while sitting around the campfire, telling stories of the day’s hunting and gathering, decided to make something up to amuse and amaze his listeners, thus kicking off the long tradition of what Lawrence Block has called “telling lies for fun and profit.”
  2. I’m thankful for the people who developed the written word. Without them, writers would just be sitting there with pens in their hands, not knowing what to do with them besides make telephone doodles.
  3. I’m thankful for my sixth-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Allison, who was the first person ever to say I had a “flair” for writing, engendering a lifelong passion and incidentally giving me something to feel good about in one of the worst years of my life.
  4. I’m also grateful for Mrs. Casper, the 6th-grade teaching assistant who encouraged me to write poetry. Working in that form sharpened my appreciation for words and helped me see their endless possibilities.
  5. I’m thankful for the inventor of the typewriter. My handwriting stinks. Thanks to this wonderful device, other people besides myself have been able to read my writing.
  6. I’m even more thankful for the inventor of word processing. What a gift to the craft of writing! No more correction fluid or correction tape! No more carbon copies! No more retyping the whole thing because you rewrote a few paragraphs!
  7. I’m thankful to Professor R. C. “Doc” Wood, the English professor who gave me so much encouragement to keep writing fiction and poetry while I was in college. I hope, now that I’ve gotten my act together at last, that I’ll fulfill some small portion of the promise he saw in my work, to thank him in some small way.
  8. I’m thankful for my mother, who never abandoned the idea that I would write “when I matured.” Well, I guess I finally have, more or less, not enough to write the literary fiction she had in mind, but—even better—enough to write something that pleases me.
  9. I’m grateful for anybody who has or will read my work and not hate it, or, if they do hate it, at least have some constructive criticisms. That includes you, dear blog-reader—I appreciate you.
  10. Finally, I’m very grateful for my wife and son, who give me life- and soul-sustaining love and a firm foundation to stand on while my brain is whirling around in fantasy-land.

As it turns out, all these items are about people. People make the world go round, in real life and in fiction. They come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions, every one fascinating in some way or other, every one akin to the stars. For this, thanks be to God.