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,

 

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

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

 

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Trouble Spots - High Resolution

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.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

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.

Down the Writing Rabbit Hole

rabbitholegraphThe Rabbit Hole

Because I’m kind of a geek, I like to keep a line chart of the number of words I’ve written in my novel to date. Usually, this is an encouraging exercise, because I can see the number of words mounting up, day after day, week after week, passing the magical 50,000 mark that separates novel from novella, and heading on to the 80,000 words that, in my mind, signals a robustly realized book.

Sometimes, though, the graph ends up looking like the image above (or next to, depending on your display) this line. Note the steady climb upwards (wild cheers!) followed by the precipitous drop (miserable groans and sad emojis rabbitholesademoji). The drop represents a trip down the writing rabbit hole.

rabbitholeholeWhy The Drop

I was writing along my merry way, following the adventures of a major, though non-leading character, when a terrific idea for his backstory smacked me upside the head. He’s an assassin, and the backstory was going to be about the first time he killed a man. It was all there in my head: he’s just a kid, he gets imprisoned by some bad guys, escapes, and makes the kill to avoid recapture. There was a little circus troupe and a mysterious, crumbling wall in the middle of the forest. Gripping stuff! A no-miss detour off the main story line!

Until I started writing it. The dratted thing just got longer and longer, rambling along with no end in sight. So I started over. Same result. Ramble, amble, bumble. Undaunted, I went at it again, determined to keep it short while retaining the excitement. The result of that venture was something akin to an overused dishrag.

Eventually, after about two weeks and five or six thousand words, I just excised the whole thing. That’s where the drop comes in. All those words, all that time, zapped.

Feh. rabbitholesademoji

Not a Complete Loss

I was pretty well disappointed and annoyed about that loss of time and words, but, as you can see, the graph took an uptick right away. Having freed myself of the backstory and gotten back to the present condition of this character, I found the story taking off again, better than before. Even though the backstory adventure was incomplete, it had given me a better grasp of the character’s background and motivations, which made his current situation easier to write about.

So What?

  1. I didn’t get rid of that backstory altogether. I cut it out and pasted into another document, to be saved for later. It might be useful for reference, or for another entirely different novel, or for a later section of this one.
  2. I got to know the character much better. Now, when he has to turn right or left, I’ll have an improved intuition about which he will choose.

Go ahead and curse those rabbit holes, but not for too long. You never know when you might come out the other end and find a pot of gold. I know, that’s rainbows, but you get the idea. Right? Sure you do. See you next time.

Comments?

Wishie says to leave a comment or he will keep staring at you with his mildly creepy fixed expression.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

One Bite at a Time

Duck taking single stepAllow me to begin this post with a few timeless proverbs:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Laozi, philosopher)

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” (Creighton Abrams, general)

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying small stones.” (Chinese proverb)

“How do you write a novel? One word at a time.” (Me, but somebody else probably said it first.)

I recently started a job that takes up a lot of my time, usually a normal workday plus two to four hours. It’s a good job in most respects, and glad to have it, but it does eat into my leisure time.

Time I might ordinarily spend writing.

Too often, people stop writing or don’t write at all because they believe they have to devote large chunks at a time to the pursuit. I know this, because I was one of those people for a long time. Then, somehow, I discovered the magic of small steps.

When I started my novel, I had to manage my time, so I set aside one hour a day, Monday through Friday. It took a while, but now my first novel is finished and I’m shopping it to agents. I have also started my second.

That second novel is going to be written under even greater time constraints than the first one was. I’ve had to cut down to one page a day, about 300 words, which takes me about 30 minutes to write. If I keep up at this pace, I can have a good 300 pages done in a year, maybe more (maybe less, but I hope not).

I had a brief Twitter conversation with a lady a while back who told me she made time for writing by always having the project with her and writing in tiny spaces of open time, like when she was stopped at a traffic light. Wow. Talk about small steps.

Don’t hang around waiting for those big chunks of time. They might never do so. Write a page a day, 10 minutes a day, a sentence a day. Get your novel written one word at a time.

Thanks,

Carson

 

Nascent Novelists: Don’t Let Fear of Failure Stop You

 

tunnelThe Tunnel

The time just before starting your novel is like standing at the mouth of a dark, strange railway tunnel, preparing to enter. You don’t know where the other end comes out; you may think you know, but you can’t really be certain until you’ve walked the whole way through. You don’t know exactly what awaits you inside. There might be bats, or rats, or giant spiders. A speeding train might appear out of nowhere, hurtling toward you, glaring with its one bright eye. It might even race up behind you and smash you flat before you even have a chance to turn around.

Putrid Failure

Scariest of all, failure might be waiting for you in that tunnel, by which I mean failure to finish the novel. Fear of failure can be so large and awful its putrid stench can reach out of the tunnel and wrap itself around you before you even set foot inside. It can make you freeze to the spot, where you’ll stay for a long time, maybe the rest of your life, wishing you could go in, but not quite finding the will to take a step. It can make you turn around and walk away, thinking anything that smells that bad can’t possibly be worth getting close to, much less grappling with. It can make all those voices in your head that say you’re not good enough and that this writing business is a waste of time drown out every creative impulse you ever had.

A mighty slayer of dreams, fear of failure is. (Is that a Yoda quote?)

failureBridgeAcceptance

So what’s a writer to do? Or an almost-nascent novelist, standing on the hairy cusp of doing and not doing?

I suppose there are many different answers to this question, but here’s mine:

I said, “Okay, I’m going to fail. Fine.” Once I accepted the worst, failure lost a lot of its power. It didn’t smell as bad or look as big.

I took a step into the tunnel and started walking, one slow step at a time.

And I failed. I came up with stinky plot lines. I created characters that wouldn’t work. Settings both preposterous and unappealing bloomed from my keyboard. But each time I failed, I patched up the disaster or razed it and rebuilt, and then moved on to the next failure.

After several years of doing this, I came out the other end of the tunnel, into the sunshine, with a finished novel. Failure and I had made an odd friendship over all that time, and as I walked away from the tunnel it stood at the entrance with a long face, waving.

“Don’t be so bummed out,” I said, “I’ll see you right down there,” and I pointed. Not far down the track stood another tunnel.

I ran for it.

 

My Pal, the Subconscious (and my Smart Spouse)

041016subconsciousNot Writing… Consciously

For the last week, I’ve been camping on a barrier island in the Florida Keys, running around with a group of Boy Scouts, including my son. We explored, we fished, we snorkeled, and we ate – a lot. I discovered the joys of sleeping in a hammock, after years of tossing and turning on the ground. It was a joyful time spent with the young person I love the most.

I did not think about writing my novel once…

…not consciously, at any rate. But when the sand started to come out of my ears at the end, I discovered the novel was still there. I hadn’t been thinking about it, but somewhere in my brain, the story was churning away, telling itself to my subconscious.

When we left on the trip, my second novel (working title, “The Farthest Hour”) was giving me some small measure of fits. I had to get my heroine out of a compound surrounded by a formidable wall – thick, tall, and topped with a myriad of pointy bits. I was getting her over said wall, and there was plenty of action, but on the whole the result was, well, kind of meh.

The Subconscious to the Rescue041016mindtriangle

My clever wife had suggested that I send the character under the wall instead of over. It was a good idea, but somehow, I couldn’t wrap my imagination around it and I had to leave that loose end dangling when I left for the wilderness. Then, with the island trip over, my subconscious knocked on the door of my waking mind and presented me a silver platter with a vision of the idea. Not only could I take my heroine under the wall, I could use the scene to build up two or three characters whose roles in the story have to this point been uncertain. In addition, I had an image of what “under the wall” would look like and what it would take to get there – think miserable prisoners and metric tons of stinky muck.

Certainly, going underneath the wall has been done numerous times before, which opens me to charges of being trite, but if it’s good enough for George R. R. Martin (in one of her early conquests, the forces of Daenerys Targaryen go under the city walls via the sewers to attack) and J. R. R. Tolkien (they went under the mountain, remember?), surely it’s good enough for me, And surely I can make it my own.

What’s In It for You?

So, what’s the point for my fellow fiction writers, especially those of us who ply the craft part-time? I’d say there are bound to be times in your life when writing is just not going to fit, no way, no how. But that doesn’t mean your creative process has to stop altogether. Let your subconscious chew on things for a while, and hopefully when you return to creating fiction you’ll have some choice ideas on your plate. (It also helps to have a clever and beautiful wife.)

Tweaking the Subconscious

Here are a half-dozen ideas to keep your brain-pixies percolating:

  • Don’t worry about not writing; the time will come (with some attention on your part, but attention is not worry).
  • Keep an ideas list.
  • Knock out a 5-minute mind map of ideas once in a while.
  • Keep a swipe document with you when you watch TV and jot down good ideas you want to use.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • In bed, before you drop off, think about your novel; it might prime the pump of your subconscious.

I wish you the best. See you next time!

 

A Novel-Writing Easter

keyboard fingersKind of About Writing

Well, great God almighty, noveleers, it’s been a hell of a first quarter here at the house of Carson Craig.

There may not be a load of stuff about writing in this post, but there’s going to be a little, and I think it’s important.

The Day JobdayJob

At my day job, content-spinner for a big corporation, my whole work group started the new year all excited about a wealth of new post-fodder we were about to come into possession of, and new people coming in to swell the digital might of our chattering band. All this was thanks to some reshuffling of corporate principals and powers.

Then, on the first Friday of the year, we were all informed that instead of enhancing our efforts, said reshuffling had resulted in our entire group becoming redundant, meaning: no job for you! We were given two options: 1) Stay 30 days, get a severance package, and say goodbye. 2) Enter the 60-Day Dance of Death; that is, take 60 days to find another job inside the company and, if that doesn’t happen, get severance package and say goodbye.

What with a teenaged son to feed and a self-employed spouse to insure, I took the Dance. I was fortunate. On day 57 I landed a job. Deep breaths were taken. Brows were mopped. Scotch was drunk.

The 60-Day Dance sucked. But, upon reflection, there was more to it than suckage.

easterEaster Day

Now I am sitting here writing this post and it is Easter Day. Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s fairly likely you’re aware this is a day when we (I’m an Episcopalian—“Catholic lite” should give you a rough idea) celebrate Jesus’s return to life after being stone dead for three days—or more like, two and a half days, maybe, since he is crucified on Friday, buried on Saturday, and then busting out of his tomb on Sunday.

Whether or not you believe this literally happened, the story itself is about amazing and wonderful things coming out of complete and total garbage. Jesus dies a horrible death, but comes back to life and soon inspires his followers to start a new religious movement.

My experience is nothing compared to that, but I did find that flowers quickly grew in the muck of the 60-Day Dance.

Co-workers from my entire, long tenure at this company came out of the woodwork to help and touched me with their concern and generosity.

My wife and son impressed me anew with their love and patience with me, a person who is often not so easy to live with.

People prayed and meditated for me. They asked me how it was going and supported me. My neighborhood community. My Boy Scout community. My church community. My workout community. My writing community.

I got a cool new day job. It’s kind of technical and kind of customer-facing (big company customers), which is very cool.

And now, here’s the writing part. I discovered that I really could write fiction under conditions of adversity. On the days—and there were many—when I felt absolutely drained of imagination and ability, I was still able to sit at the keyboard and knock out paragraphs, the majority of them somewhat serviceable. I think that means I probably have the intestinal fortitude to stick with the art.

So, yay. A writer’s life for me, at least part-time (for now).

Maybe you’ll have a writing Easter one day. I hope you come out of it okay, and I hope it makes you a stronger writer.

See you next time.

  • Carson