Farewell to Bloggerland… for now, anyway

farewellDear Nascent Novelist Readers,

Firstly, thanks for visiting this space. I’m grateful to you for taking your valuable time to visit.

Secondly, I won’t be posting here for a while. I’ve learned to never say never, put its possible this may be the last post here, ever. If I do get the urge to come back, well, great, so be it.

Why, you ask, as you mop a tear from your cheek? I’ve simply reached a point where my plate is too full and something has to go.

The day job has gotten very busy, in a good way. Family life is as busy as ever. Writing fiction takes time.

I find that I’m stressing out trying to get everything done and that’s counter to the entire philosophy I’ve tried to expound in this blog.

If you’d like to stay connected, you can follow my Twitter feed: @coolcarsoncraig, or you can friend me on Facebook by searching for “carson craig, nascent novelist.”

So, not goodbye, but farewell, as in may you fare well in whatever your endeavors may be.

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.

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.

Filling the Gaps in Your Story

A canyon between two steep cliffsNote: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

A simplification of Newton’s first law of motion, from our friends at Wikipedia, states: “An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.” The same can be said of your novel. If your novel is moving nicely forward (which I hope it is), it will continue to do so unless something comes along to stop it or shove it off in another direction.

While there are plenty of things that can stop or re-direct your novel, the one I’m thinking of today is what I call gaps. These are gaps in your knowledge, plot or other novel elements that crop up as you’re writing, regardless of the amount of planning you’ve done. For example, you might be writing a scene that occurs in the vicinity of the Hoover dam and discover that, though you’ve read about the dam itself, you know nothing about the countryside or the roads. Gap! Or, let’s say you’re composing away and suddenly realize that if Uncle Slappy has the knife in the chapter your currently crafting, it had to show up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag several chapters prior. Gap!

Whatever you do when you encounter a gap, you don’t want to let it stop your progress and you don’t want to let it re-direct you to the extent that you go off to work on something else. You can avoid that sad fate if you have a way to handle gaps already in hand when you start your project. I have a couple of ways I’m fond of; no doubt there are more.

One gap-handler I like is the in-line notation. This allows you to go with the flow when you hit a gap and still provides you an opportunity for patch-up later. As you hit a gap, you simply note the problem in brackets and keep right on going. For example: “Uncle Slappy pulled the magic knife from between the sofa cushions and [for Unc Slap to have knife now, knife must be in Ant Kiz purse way before now] brandished it like a sidekick in a B-grade swashbuckler.” This is not my idea; I picked it up from some writing book a long time ago and have used it with some success.

Another method, and my current favorite, is to keep a document called “Fixes.” I use a word processing file for this, but you could use a card file, or a legal pad, or the wall—whatever makes your cork float. I keep the document open while I’m writing and when I hit a gap make an entry there. For example: “For the scene ‘Uncle Slappy Cuts Up’ be sure the knife shows up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag some scenes prior.” I like this method because I don’t have to go combing through the manuscript later to find the fixes.

That’s all there is to it. Happy gap-crossing!

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.

Anniversary! And: Don’t Let Jerks Rob You of Writing

This post’s publishing date, November 14th, 2012, marks the one-year anniversary of Carson Craig, Nascent Novelist.

Many thanks to everybody who has stopped by to read a bit.

Special thanks to those of you who visit on a regular basis.

May your souls be in Heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

One more piece of business: I won’t be publishing the draft of the novel here anymore. You can still follow the developing story on wattpad.

And now, to the post!

Time and time again in this space, I return to the things that can keep you from writing, things like writing to please other people or not taking your time. The other day a bad memory popped into my head, as they are unfortunately wont to do, and I remembered something else you might have to overcome in your writing journey:

Jerks.

Which brings me to a story.

When I was a young man, I wanted to be a poet, or a fiction writer, or both. I had a good career as a college poet in that my poetry prof loved my work and I got a lot of my pieces published in the school’s annual literary review. After college, I spent about three years partying as much as humanly possible. Writing anything went out the window.

I discovered writing again when I stumbled into graduate school at an institution offering an MFA in Creative Writing. I started writing short fiction. The first thing I turned in, a “literary” piece, was well-received by the professor. Subsequent efforts, which were more in the lines of humor and fantasy (my favorites), not so much. Still, that first story stood out and provided the catalyst for subsequent events.

A term or two later, news arrived that a Great Literary Person (GLP) was to visit our campus and conduct a workshop. The GLP was the fiction editor of a famous magazine and was even bringing its spouse, a writer, we were told, of some note, although none of us had ever heard the name. Excitement reigned.

My excitement reigned particularly high, because my writing prof offered to submit that first literary story to the workshop. It would be read and then personally reviewed in a public forum by the GLP and spouse. Having always come out well in such situations before, I assumed this would be one more ego-fest.

Wrong!

As it turned out, my wonderful story wasn’t. The lead character’s traits mixed those of a young adult with a little kid, and so didn’t make sense. The church portrayed in the story didn’t conduct itself in a normal Episcopalian manner, so it wasn’t believable. The thing was too much like a Flannery O’Connor tale. The criticisms went on.

Nobody had ever reacted so negatively to my writing before, so I was crushed. But, looking back, it wasn’t so much the criticism itself, but the way it was delivered that squashed me.

The GLP was downright nasty, and the spouse wasn’t much better. The tone of voice they used was haughty. The words they used were loaded. They said nothing about how the work might be improved, or what merits it had, but focused exclusively on the faults. It was so bad that one of my teachers—not my writing professor, I’ll note—stood up to interrupt and defend me. I walked out of that room with my tail between my legs. Had the criticisms been leavened with some constructive advice, I think the results would have been different.

I had already slowed down my fiction writing, for reasons I won’t bore you with here, but that experience brought it to a complete halt. I allowed myself to be blown off the rails by…

Jerks.

The result was I didn’t write fiction again for many years. I made a couple of good starts that fizzled on the way to my current adventures in word-world, but really, the time between my being victimized by jerks and the happy writing practice I enjoy today is about thirty years.

Think about that.

Thirty years, never to be recovered.

Please, please, please, don’t let this happen to you! It is all too likely that you will run into jerks in your writing life who will try to run you down personally and as a writer. They’ll take great glee in ripping your work to shreds. If you can, find a way to shrug off this garbage and keep writing.

If you can’t shrug off the jerkiness, keep writing anyway. The pain will stay with you a while and you’ll feel like you’re no good, but keep writing anyway. Sooner or later, the pain will fade and what will remain is all those pages you’ve filled up—many of them pretty darn good, I’ll bet.

So, write for yourself. Write to see how the story turns out. Write for the joy of it.

Don’t lose more than half your lifetime to jerks.

Fear: The Writing Killer

Faucet handle with fear written on itAh, Halloween night—that smorgasbord of creepy creatures, cute kids and sugar, sugar, sugar. And then there’s All Saint’s Day, following immediately on Halloween’s heels, belching out its loads of kids who’ve been up too late, walked too far and eaten way too many Butterfinger Minis. It’s this post-ween, All Saint’s Day hangover that puts me in mind of this week’s topic:

Fear!

Many of us writer-types and other creative folks know it.

Fear is self-doubt. Sylvia Plath said “The worst enemy to creativity is selfdoubt.” Nothing is more demoralizing than believing at the outset that your work isn’t going to be any good. After all, if it’s going to be lousy, why bother? If you’re a writer or any other sort of artist, you’re always wading into unknown waters with nobody to help you. Confidence, or at least recklessness, is something you need, or you’ll just dither at the edge of that water, never getting anywhere.

Fear is writing for something outside yourself—approval, for example. You can’t be afraid that writing just to write isn’t worthwhile. To sustain the effort required to complete a novel, or even a short story, you need to enjoy the process for its own sake. If you’re writing to make Mama proud, to make money, to attain fame, you’re likely to peter out.  I’m not saying that Mama’s pride, money and fame are intrinsically bad, I’m just saying they don’t come first. The writing comes first and all these other things follow in its wake – you hope

Fear is the blank page, paper or electronic. I often think of the Robert Benchley essay in which he writes “The” on a blank page one morning, screws around for the rest of the day, then at quitting time writes “hell with it” there and goes home. That blank space, waiting for your words to bring it to life, is an intimidating creature, but you’ve got to at least put “The” on it to get started. Better yet, free write (or write a guest post for me… I could use the help).

Fear is the inability to say “no” enough to enable your writing. We’re all so important, aren’t we? The world will surely come to an end if we refuse a party or a volunteer assignment. Maybe it won’t, though. There are plenty of kind ways to say no—just Google “how to say no.” I tried it and got about 400,000,000 results. If you don’t say “no” enough to make time for your writing, guess what won’t get done? The world will keep spinning without you; your friends and family will live. Try it.

Fear is the inability to say “yes” to your writing, to give yourself permission to do it. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m putting my priorities in the wrong place. Shouldn’t I be working harder at my job? Shouldn’t I volunteer more at my church or my son’s school? Aren’t these things worthier of my time than writing fiction? All I can say is, while I could certainly contribute in other areas, I don’t feel called to them. I feel called to write and to make art. Your calling comes from God, or the universe, or from your innermost being—whatever you name it, the call has to be answered or you’ll simply wither, and that’s no good for anybody. Take it from someone who withered for years before answering—take that call.

I’d be interested to know what fears try to douse your creative spark and how you deal with them. Please feel free to leave a comment here or send me a Twitter message at @coolcarsoncraig. Thanks, and happy fictioneering.

Staring at the Ceiling

Announcement: I’ve decided to start posting only once a week, on Wednesdays, starting today. I hope this move will give me more time to write better fiction, which I hope you’ll one day enjoy. Thanks!

Baby staring at the ceiling“That’s not work… staring at the ceiling!”

So a radio panel show participant I heard once characterize his wife’s evaluation of his profession—not so much actual toil, but looking off into space, if not toward the ceiling then in some other equally lackadaisical direction. I wonder, if someone took the trouble to do a study, how much of a writer’s at-the-desk time would consist of scribing prose and how much would consist of staring, or chewing a pencil, or something else thoughtful.

Since I’ve reached a place in the Thin Spots project where I’m crafting scenes from scratch again and not re-working old material into the revised plan (yay!), I’ve come to think the percentage of ceiling-staring time is pretty high.

Words usually just don’t come roaring out of my head onto the page, because they’ve got to be preceded by mental imagery. Even though I’ve got my descriptive paragraphs all written and my scene sheets all neatly assembled, I still have to figure out precisely what’s going to happen in the moment-to-moment life of the novel. If a beastie is going to fling something at the hero (Colin), what’s it going to be? A spear? A cassava melon? Is Colin then going to get hit, roll, or dodge? If he dodges, does he go left or right? I could go on, but you would probably hate that, so I won’t. You get the idea.

The periods of staring come into play when I’m trying to work out all those details. For me, it’s a process of envisioning the action and hearing the dialogue in my imagination. Part of the scene will play through my head like a movie trailer and then I’ll write down the pictures, allowing the magic of wordplay to change them as it will. Then I’ve got a platform to stand on with one foot while I reach out into empty space with the other, feeling for the next bit of the scene.

This process requires me to avoid hurry. If I’m in a dither about getting to a certain point or spitting out a quota of words in my allotted hour, I’ll be too focused on putting words on paper to allow sufficient time for the meat of the scene to form in my brain. When that happens, I either get little written at all or the writing meanders all over without getting much of anywhere.

I hope I’ve now shown how important staring at the ceiling (or at anything) is to writing fiction. So, friends, if someone says to you that all you’re doing is staring into space, print out this post and show it to them. They will read it and be utterly convinced, or they will crumple it into a ball and fling it at you. In the latter case, I suggest a dodge; that seems to work for me, most of the time.