Category Archives: Writing Tips

Finding the right name for your character

Janaka Dharmasena → in Toys

I believe that it is human nature to want to ‘name’ things: our children, our pets, our homes, our cars, and for some enthusiasts—our body parts. But as writers we have that extra responsibility of naming of our characters, or in other words, the living, breathing, souls that infiltrate our stories. Believe it or not, it’s a tricky concept. It’s more than just picking a name off the top of our heads; in fact, the right name, in many ways, is fifty percent good characterization. Nondescript names (unless they are intentionally so) often do not fly. That’s not to say that common, everyday names don’t work in fiction, but they MUST suit the characters on many different levels.

See this link from Writer’s Digest before reading on.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters?et_mid=576922&rid=3058805

Here are some famous examples from literature:

Guess the bookworm…Eugene (Gene) or Phineas (Finny)?
Guess the cunning tramp…Oliver or (Artful) Dodger?
Scout: A tomboy or a Miss Priss?

That being said, would Atticus Finch be as memorable if his name were Joe Jones? What if Holden Caufield’s name was Bob Green? Think of your favorite book. What do you remember most? The plot? The descriptive language? Or the characters? Now take that one step further…the character’s names, perhaps? I guarantee the characters you remember most were not just given the ‘best’ names, but were given the names that best suited the character.

I’ll give an example of my own. Some years back, I wrote a short story called “Prom Night.” Since the story was rejected many times over  and is basically going nowhere, I feel comfortable using it as my character-naming tutorial guinea pig. But first a brief summary to better understand the nature of the characters:

On the night of prom, two dateless high school juniors go to a local pool hall in hopes of finding some adventure. Girl # 1 is on a mission to make up for the fact that wasn’t invited to prom. She is abrasive, bossy, and insecure. Girl #2 is more subdued, level-headed, and actually was asked to the prom, but didn’t accept. It can be surmised by a discerning reader that Girl # 2 turned down her invitation to keep her best friend, Girl # 1, from being alone that night.

At the pool hall, the girls run into a young man (approximately aged 28) who they’ve clearly met a few times in the past. Girl # 1 and this guy have a mild flirtation going on. Girl # 2 disapproves, but generally keeps quiet, being that Girl # 1 will snap at her if she shares too many precautionary opinions.

Later in the night, the young man takes the two girls to a park. He and Girl # 1 go around a bend, and they begin to fool around. At first, Girl # 1 is a willing participant, but when she shows hesitation to go further, the young man becomes enraged at her deception of experience. He takes off, leaving both girls behind.

Girl # 1, humiliated and distraught, seeks solace in Girl #2 who has overheard part of the incident. Girl # 2 pretends like nothing happened, and miraculously Girl # 1 softens as they discuss plans for having a sleepover.

Oh chill out, I told you it got rejected about a zillion times. The plot is not the point…it’s the names. Despite the story’s flaws, I still say I picked good monikers for the characters. Here is my reasoning:

“Tina.” Otherwise known as Girl # 1. The name has sharp angles. It’s the name of a someone with extremes. The “T” sound conjures up words such as “tough,” “terrible,” and “touchy.” At the same time, it ends in an “a” giving it that eternal feminine ring. Not classically feminine per se, but certainly in spit-fire girly-girl kind of way. This attitude reflects the character to a (no pun intended) capital “Tee.”

“Carey.” Or, better yet, Girl # 2. This is an endearing, yet less remarkable name. It’s a name that’s easy to say and easy to like. It “carries” one along in a sense. It’s smooth sailing; it’s easygoing. Just like the character. It’s a good, solid name that can be easily overlooked for its wonderful simplicity. Hence, Tina doesn’t often appreciate her friend Carey’s efforts. The spelling is significant too. It says that this character is special, different…but you might have look a bit closer.

“Scott.” The young(ish) man. This is a name that’s easy for an infatuated young girl to repeat over and over again, to write in her notebooks inside giant red hearts. It’s a rather unassuming name, and in that sense, it’s essentially a clean slate. A writer could probably turn a “Scott” into any kind character she wants him to be. Here’s my thing though…it’s not exactly a little boy’s name (such as Tommy or Timmy, or in this case, Scotty) but it’s not really…a man’s name either. This is precisely this character’s agenda. He’s no kid. Twenty-eight years old with mature needs messing with a sixteen year old girl? And that being said, well, he’s no man either.

“Chompers.” He was not mentioned in the summary; mostly because he does not play a huge role in the story. In fact, I’d considered plucking him from the page, but I just couldn’t do it. He adds of touch of humor to the otherwise sad thematic premises. He is the owner of the pool hall. An older man who speaks in sentence fragments, is un-amused , yet undeterred by Tina’s nastiness that chews on toothpicks and absently reads magazines up at the counter. The girls name him for his giant, yellow veneers. It is the perfect “inside joke” for two teenage girls. They have no clue as to his actual name, so instead they name him for an unfortunate physical characteristic. FYI, it’s later revealed that his name is “Herb,” which of course Tina finds hilarious enough to make a marijuana reference  as in  ‘I bet he smokes a lot of Herb too’

Whatever method you use to name your characters, please note that it holds a lot more importance than you might think. In many ways, just like your children, you’re naming them for life. I’d love to hear your methods for choosing character names! Feel free to comment below.

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Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Give intuitive revision some credit!

As a subscriber to numerous magazines (both print & online) and newsletters, I am constantly being offered writing aid, help, and advice. Correction. I am constantly being sold writing aid, help, and advice. Register today and save 30% on an all-exclusive, one-time webinar How to Write Fiction Like a Pro. Last chance to purchase Sam Canwrite (but you can’t)’s bestseller Back to the Pit! Seven Reasons This Book Won’t Help You Achieve Your Writing Goals and Reach National Stardom. Do I sound bitter? I’m not, actually. In fact, I often feel that I should be buying these books, that I should be attending these seminars. But then I stop and wonder if Agatha Christie was ever offered tutorials on structuring plot, or if Charlotte Bronte ever got invited to attend a lecture on character development, or if Mark Twain ever purchased a book entitled The Essentials of Comedic Writing.

Somehow, I doubt it. The question then becomes what did these past greats have that we don’t have? Is it possible to learn the craft of writing through trial and error? Do I need to fork over large wads of cash to become a better writer? (Says the sucker who spent thousands on a graduate level writing degree). In all seriousness though, much of what I’ve learned about the process, I did in three ways:

1. By writing
2. By reading
3. Critique groups (both in and outside the classroom)

To clarify, when I say “reading” I typically mean other novels, though I’ve come across a limited number of useful guidebooks as well.

Recently, I’ve begun my novel’s fifth revision, and believe me when I tell you that only now (after more than a year) have I fully begun to understand what it takes to write a book. My point is this, for the most part I’ve ignored the gimmicks and gadgets and I’ve set about figuring this writing thing out on my own. And trust me, I’m still no expert. But I will share with you what I’ve learned about the art of writing fiction based purely on my own experiences:

Chapter Segmentation: If I look back at my novel’s initial draft, the chapters have no delineation. It’s essentially a giant brain dump. I start and end in random places, sometimes right in the middle of the action. Some chapters are three pages long, others are fifteen pages long (which is often OK to do, so long as it’s effectively planned out; mine were not, of course). Last spring my thesis advisor told me that I ‘bury my gems.’ In other words, I stick the great, terse, one- liners that would otherwise make fabulous chapter openers/closers in the middle of the third paragraph in.

I’ve learned to write my chapters as mini-stories within the bigger story. Each chapter should be able to stand on its own, but remain linked to the overall big picture. It’s sort of like an episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad—each episode has its own conflict, but often draws from previous conflicts or prepares for future conflicts. My chapters are now sorted into segments with strong openings and closings. Together they make up pieces the story is made of.

The Scene Shuffle: Anyone who writes with serious intent knows that many, many, words that are written will never see the light of day. This is one-hundred percent true. The first draft of my book has scenes the second draft never became acquainted with and so on. I’ve learned to distinguish which scenes make the cut, and which ones don’t. Often the slashed content adds nothing to the broader purpose of the story. Sometimes it disrupts the flow the action, causing the reader to literally ‘halt.’ Other times it is just weak and ineffective, and isn’t worth revising. Plus, in other cases, a major plot point gets reversed or altered and then these scenes simply become irrelevant. This is a very important skill to master. It says a lot about the final outcome of the book. I haven’t mastered it yet; I’ve just gotten better at it.

I’ve also learned to identify my ‘pivotal’ scenes and slow…them…down. Another key piece of advice I got from my thesis advisor was that I tend to rush through my biggest, most dramatic scenes. It’s as if the content matter (that I, myself, created) makes me queasy and I just want to move away from it. I now know that these scenes are what make a book memorable. So write it over…again, again, and again.

Characterization is a broken record: This is key: in order to really get a character’s thoughts, feelings, motives, and even personality across to the reader, you must beat it like a dead horse. The reader needs constant reminders of your characters’ obsessions, their desires, their needs. If an 18-year old female protagonist is yearning for acceptance from her absentee father, I need to hear her say this throughout the story many times over. Casually mentioning it the beginning won’t suffice. She needs to bemoan this yearning. She needs to have flashbacks. She needs to discuss it with her friends. She needs to act a certain way and say certain things in her father’s presence. She has to physically attempt to please him and fail over and over again. Otherwise, she’s just a stick figure no one can relate to or feel something for.

Research first!: Any research that needs to be done for the story (i.e. a character has a medical issue, the setting is World War II Russia, etc.) should probably be done ahead of time. At least in my case, I will not write one word of my next novel until I’ve done a fair amount of research on the book’s topic. What I am finding as I revise my current novel is once the words are down, the characters are created, the plot is structured,  and the tension is building,  it’s a lot harder to insert facts, statistics, and other likely observations in the midst of an already thriving scene. It’s not impossible, but it’s more difficult. If research is done prior to writing, then the revision process is simply fixing text that is already accurate.

Time is on your side: It takes many drafts to fully understand the world you’ve created. Writing is a journey of discovery (perhaps the best part), but at some point, a destination must be reached. That being said, once it is clear how the story begins, develops, and ends, can the proper adjustments be made. Seeds can be planted, characters can transform, and connections between this and that can be made. It is a process no doubt, and there’s no use in rushing.

I don’t know if I can call these tidbits I’ve just shared advice, or if they are merely the realities of the writing process. They aren’t even necessarily facts, unshakable truths about fiction writing—or any writing for that matter. Instead, I’ll call them lessons I’ve taught myself, lessons that have presented themselves to me (with help, of course) as I’ve grown as a writer. I didn’t unlock these pearls of wisdom by attending a single class or reading a book on craft. And while I am truly not knocking these tools created to help writers, the truth is, they are worth nothing if the writer herself doesn’t put them to use.

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Filed under Breaking Through, Revision, Writing Process, Writing Tips

How the club scene gave me insight on characterization

Take a minute and think back to a book that you loved, but a read a long time ago. Got one? Good. Now what do you remember the most about the story? The plot? The conflicts? The setting? The descriptive writing? Maybe somewhat, but most likely, right about now, you’re recalling a character.

Characters make or break a story (like you’ve never heard that one before). They are the driving force. Characters are to literature as subjects are to sentences. They perform all of the action. They are the ‘who’ in the ‘who, what, where, why, and how.’ See what I did there? 🙂

That’s why it’s so important to develop rich, flawed, plausible characters. No stick figures. No stock figures. No one-dimensional perfectionist heroes. Real people. Your mother. Your boyfriend. Your neighbor. You.

I wrote an article for Suite 101 that outlined the difference between round and flat characters. See here: Round Characters vs. Flat Characters

But as I grow with my writing, I’ve come to learn that the trick for creating indelible characters lies within the fundamentals. The essentials. The stripped-down-naked emotions. The desires, the needs, the motivations, the vulnerabilities, or perhaps most importantly, the intentions. It may take a few drafts to get there, but once you do, once you see what your characters want, what they are after, the other stuff–physical traits, personality, backgrounds–cleanly fall into place.

I’ll give a real life example. This past weekend was my bachelorette party. We went down to Atlantic City, and stayed at Harrah’s. At night, the hotel pool area is given a sort of pseudo club vibe with remixed versions of various already-disposable Top 40 hits. Hardly my scene, especially since at 29, I felt like the Grandma who seemed to have forgotten how to walk in four-inch heels.

Random groping, photobombing, and dresses that fall right below the butt cheeks were the norm. I could practically smell the pheromones. Naturally I’d never been more grateful for my soon-to-be husband, or quite frankly, my age. If I’ve ever wished I was twenty-two again, I don’t after this weekend, because being twenty-two means going to the pool after dark. And going to the pool after dark means being star struck by Jersey Shore cast members.

At one point in the evening I found myself talking a twenty-three year guy who seemed flabbergasted at the thought of my getting married. “That’s such a long time,” he kept saying. “You’re twenty-three,” I responded, “for tonight, just focus on finding a dance partner.”

But then the conversation took a strange turn. Yes, I’m aware of his state of inebriation, but his whole tone changed. “It’s weird,” he said, “last night I had a dream about a brunette, and I don’t know, I was in love with her or something.” He proceeded to tell me that girls from his town didn’t take relationships seriously, and an ex in the past had hurt him, and so forth.

It dawned on me then. Maybe deep down, this hand-friendly crowd is hoping to meet someone interesting, hoping to feel a spark, a connection. Perhaps secretly, all they really want is a reason for going out, for dressing inappropriately, for drinking beyond recognition…maybe….just maybe, they are hoping to go beyond the overstated notion of ‘scoring.’ Maybe they want to be carried away by love.

Not everyone in the club of course. But some. Your character maybe. See what I did there? I’ve come full circle. If you, as a writer know that in essence, your binge drinking, weight lifting, protein gurgling, hair-gelling party guy character wants someone to connect with…it’s easier to establish his purpose. He may act one way on the outside, but you and your readers know what it is he truly longs for. And that, my fellow intrinsic writers, is what makes a well-rounded character.

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July 17, 2012 · 6:06 pm

Ideas for Writing: Five plot-centered prompts to get started!

Be kind, please. I’ve never actually done something like this before. Well, OK, that’s not 100% accurate. Once in a grad class, a professor asked us each to create our own writing prompts. Then he read them (anonymously, thank goodness) out loud and we all picked one for a free writing exercise. He didn’t withhold his opinions, however, on which prompts were worthy and which ones were crappy. I remember when he read mine, he raised his eyebrows and blinked three times in row, a facial expression that could only be construed as: Whoa, this one’s out there. I still believe very much in my prompt! In fact, I included it below–see if you can figure out which one received the ‘look.’

Anyhow, these are some original writing prompt ideas. In this segment, they relate to the plot points of a novel, story, poem, etc. If you’ve seen any of them before, it’s pure coincidence. As far as I’m concerned, they all come from my intrinsic writing brain:

1. A woman is standing at her kitchen sink washing dishes, when she notices, from out the window, a solitary, red (or any color, really) balloon floating in the vast sky. This reminds her of a significant childhood experience. Write about it.  OR A solitary, red balloon is floating in the vast sky. Tell the story of how it got there.

2. Four teenage friends are trying to get into (any concert) back in (any year). Write about their adventure.
For example, it’s 1978, and four high school sophomores from New Jersey are just dying to get access into CBGB’s. How does the night unravel? This may or may not require some research.

3. An old man from the World War II era is taking a long train ride to visit his grandson. When a  strange woman takes a seat across the aisle from him, he is suddenly taken by a distant memory–the day he lost his virginity to a prostitute while in the service. This also may require research.

4. A little boy (or girl) gets separated from his mother at a carnival, and witnesses something that terrifies him. Tell the story from the child’s point-of-view.

5.  A young man sees a young woman in a movie theater, and swears he knows her from someplace. He barely watches the film, because he is trying in vain to figure out why she seems so familiar. After the credits, he follows her outside and approaches her. Who is she? What happens?

This is a fun exercise because it not only gives my readers potential ideas, but it gives me ideas too. Any of these prompts can twist and turn in directions a writer never expected. That’s really the beauty of it all, isn’t it?

Anyone else want to contribute? Pen your own writing prompt below!

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Top Ten Lists, Writing Tips

What are your writing obsessions?

I’ll admit, I’m ripping this one off an old college professor. In a poetry writing course some years back, she asked us to consider our “poetic obsessions.” She even brought in some of her own compulsions from her office within the same building. Vintage advertisements from a younger America, books with brown, image-less hard covers and yellowing pages, china cat figurines with chipped ears. She spread it all out on the long conference table. Told us to sift through it, get inspired, write a poem. “We all have our own obsessions,” she said, “obsessions which fuel our writing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Go home and scan your bedrooms, work rooms, or other places you may sanctify. Examine your bookshelves, closets, dresser drawers. What seems to come up over and over again? These are your obsessions. And I’ll bet you anything that from time to time, they inexplicably show up in your writing.”

I was eager to come home and observe my space for my obsessions. I went straight to my office, and just as my professor said, I noticed some patterns. Flowers, for one thing. Fake flowers. Feather flowers, glass flowers, plastic flowers, wooden flowers. On my desk, shelves, end tables, etc. Then there was my lighthearted fixation on the occult: astrology books, psychic books, palm reading cards. I also have a greeting card with a painted fairy balancing the scales of justice on her shoulders. LIBRA it says in fancy font across the bottom. I have posters, calendars, and books on Elvis Presley. Numerous more books on rock ‘n roll, and Rolling Stone compilations, etc.  I was surprised to find I had more than one book on England–some simply images of the countryside, some tour guides, and some chronicled histories, including an anthology on the kings and queens.

My photo albums are chock full of pictures of myself as a child. On an antique step ladder that I use for decorative purposes are photographs of my grandparents as children. I have another framed picture of my father and uncle as young boys. Then there are the lighthouses–tiny knick knack versions of course. My grandfather–formerly of the Coast Guard–was an avid collector. I also have an image of a lighthouse I took with my digital camera on the background of my computer. And cats…paintings, books, and a humorous tapestry that says, “The more I get to some people, the more I like the cat.” Plus two real live ones that like to rub against my face as I write.

I could go on (Thomas Kinkade desk calendar, prints, and collectors’ coffee table books), but I’ll stop and say this: At one point or another, all of these things have turned up in my work. We all write for various reasons, and sometimes we get too caught up in the ‘business’ side of it–publications, queries, conferences, platform building, etc. and while these elements of living the writing life are both important and thrilling, I think sometimes we forget that writing is a subliminal, unconscious process that can help us connect to our hidden depths, those things that make us who we are. Writing is channeling, it’s drudging up the dirt, and these ‘obsessions’ of ours are symbols, or keys have you, that unlock what we consider to be important.

So I’m interested…what are YOUR obsessions, and do they, perhaps inadvertently or not, reveal themselves in your writing?

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Filed under Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Process, Writing Tips

How often should we be writing?

I believe that this is something writers often ponder. I’ve read interviews of prominent authors, attended panel discussions, participated in writing groups, taken writing courses, etc. and usually at some point in the discussion, this question will pop up like a shiny, red pimple on the morning of the prom. The truth is, various writers will give various answers. Some well-established storytellers will tell you to write everyday for hours at a time. Clearly we don’t all have this luxury–I sure don’t, but I’m working on it! Here’s my personal opinion on this widely debated writer’s conundrum.

On average, I write five to eight hours a week. When I say “write,” generally what I am referring to is my novel-in-progress or one of my many, many underdeveloped short stories. For the most part, I don’t include writing this blog or engaging in other forms of social networking as part of my writing time. I am solely commenting on my ‘work,’ or in other words, the pieces I hope-upon-hope, wish-upon-wish will one day be in print.

I teach both day and evening courses, and as a result, certain days of the week are unavailable for writing. The benefit of this is that on other days, I have a light course load, which leaves plenty of (non-excusable) hours to enter the thriving world of my own creation. In other words, it is necessary that I both find and make time to be the scribe I so desire to be. On Tuesdays, I’ll grab an hour after work. Thursdays I finish teaching at 3 pm, hence I can fit in two hours or more. This quarter, I am off on Fridays, so I take at least a three hour chunk to devote to the art. Then there are the weekends, which depending on my level of ‘open availability,’ I either have two extra Fridays, or, sadly, a Monday or Wednesday (days in which writing is not possible).

Of course when the quarter changes I’ll have to formulate a new plan, but until then this is what I work with. Are there some weeks when I write only three hours? Of course; life’s ebb is ever changing, but the key truly is persistence. If I miss a day, I’ll find another where I can make up for it. But regardless of the unpredictability of time, I’ve been working with this (albeit inconsistent) schedule since August 2010. The truth is, though I am still in the midst of perfecting it all, I really have made considerable progress.

I think the key is this: Look for time, make time, and utilize time. You know your schedule better than anyone else. But if you decide to write, you need to sit down and do it. Trust me, in this enterprise, it truly is the only way.

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Filed under The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Fears, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Just maybe

“We, and I think I’m speaking for many writers, don’t know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is to write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don’t think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn’t work that way. When the magic comes, it’s a gift.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

It’s true. I wonder everyday if what I’m writing is good enough, interesting enough, worthy enough. I dreamed that one of my short stories received an honorable mention in a particular contest. When I woke, feeling jubilant no doubt, I realized that I never submitted that story to said contest. I’d let the deadline pass, assumed another rejection. My dream woke me up (no pun intended). What I really let pass was an opportunity.

They’ll be more contests. Not all is lost. But maybe my subconscious is telling me that it’s possible. Everyday I pray, not for success or fame or bestselling novels, but for belief. To dare believe I can do this. Perhaps it’s working? I’m pushing myself to break through?

I’m not sure that what I’m doing is groundbreaking. To be honest, that’s not really my intention. All I truly want is to believe. Yes, that and both the liberty and leisure to able to write more. My whole life maybe. This sounds so pseudo-inspirational. But to me it’s actually very important. Regardless of what happens.

So I won’t stop. I’ve been rewriting my novel and discovering all the things it didn’t have the first time around. Now it does. It brings me personal happiness each day. In this endeavor that’s all I can hope for. If not for that, I don’t have much. I’m glad I’m learning to understand this.

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Filed under Breaking Through, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Fears, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Doubt II

What IS writer’s block? I used to think it meant “not knowing what to write.” I don’t believe that anymore. It’s got to be more complex than that. The Gotham Writer’s Workshop–based in NYC–sends out a newsletter, which often includes a mini-interview with established authors. The first question each author is asked? ‘What are some methods for overcoming writer’s block?’ (I apologize, this is not the question verbatim). Nine times out of ten, these writers will claim that the proverbial ‘block’ is nonsense. Most will swear it’s an invention of the mind. Some say there isn’t enough time for writer’s block, because there is just too much writing to do.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. They’ve published, sold, gained readers, etc. And quite frankly, I don’t think I have it–the ‘block’ that is. Because, in the current stage of my novel, I know what I want to write. I know what is going to happen next. Usually once I sit down to work on manuscript, new ideas come, old ideas get trashed, the characters’ voices take over my thoughts and so on and so on. In this sense, I agree. The best way to cure writer’s block is to WRITE! Sit down, and scold yourself. Say, ‘you may not get up from this chair for one hour. After that you are free.’ Surprise, surprise. Writing gets done.

So, if the lack of flowing ideas is the surface of this awful affliction, I think my current problem goes a few layers deeper. See, I haven’t posted on this blog since March 4th. My plight is more complicated. It’s doubt, and it’s back. I’ve written about the D word before. It goes something like this…what if my idea doesn’t have a place in the current market, what if deep down, my story is total crap, even if I do publish, will anyone care, how many people even read this blog? What do I really want to come from this story? Am I too old? Am I running out of time? Can I call myself a writer if I have virtually nothing to show for it? And then, the big question: Is it even worth it?

I’d write all day if I could. I love it. Plain and simple, that’s why I do it. But these questions consistently flow through my mind in a steady stream. I know this much. I will complete my novel. I promised myself I would. So I will. After that….???

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Filed under Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writer's Block, Writing Process, Writing Tips

What’s going on down there?

“When I start on a book, I have been thinking about it and making occasional notes for some time—20 years in the case of Imperial Earth, and 10 years in the case of the novel I’m presently working on. So I have lots of theme, locale, subjects and technical ideas. It’s amazing how the subconscious self works on these things. I don’t worry about long periods of not doing anything. I know my subconscious is busy.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

Lately I’ve been writing even when I’m not writing. I’ll be in the car, the shower, a restaurant, the grocery store, and I’ll be completely lost inside my own head, not just thinking about writing, actually writing. The descriptions, the dialogue, the action…all of it. In my head. I’m convinced that I sometimes move my lips along with my thought process. I’ve often caught total strangers. giving me questionable looks.

The other afternoon I worked tirelessly on revising my novel. When I stopped, I went downstairs to feed my cats. As I stood at the counter, the two of them circling my feet like sharks, suddenly I thought of the perfect thing for character X to say. I slopped the food in their bowls and raced back upstairs. Wrote one extra line of dialogue. Then wound up spending another half-hour at the computer.

I’m even doing it in my sleep. Really. I’ll wake from a image-less dream where I hear the flow of a narrator’s voice echoing in my mind. It won’t necessarily be coherent material. I’m not even sure if its my book. But it’s writing. It’s definitely writing. Very strange.

New scenes develop out of nowhere. Friday night I saw a news brief about a 90 year man who still owns, runs, and operates his own barbershop. Suddenly I had an idea for a scene in the book. Not a scene, really. A ‘clip.’ There’s a difference. A scene runs at least 700 words (or more), a clip can be under 300. This barbershop notion turned out to be an important clip though. It established an early hint of something that was to come. It worked beautifully.

I think I’ve been enmeshed with the story long enough now to where this kind of stuff happens on its own. In the beginning, yes, I had to actively seek out inspiration. But the wheels have been turning for nearly a year and a half, and it’s true. The subconscious is an amazing tool. I’m beginning to think that so much of writing is to learning to activate this way too often dormant oasis that lies in all of us.

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

If you look closely…

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. If we can’t make up stories about ordinary people, who can we make them up about? … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike

Tonight I had dinner at my grandfather’s house. I’ve worked many hours in the past two days, and taught various classes. Before heading to Grandpa’s I decided to stop at a county park near his house and relish in twenty to thirty minutes of down time. I think it’s crucial for intrinsic writers–or your everyday introvert– to do this occasionally. I’m both. A writer, an introvert. It’s crucial. Reflection periods. I used to think that more people ought to do this. But today it occurred to me that if everyone did it, then parks like mine would be swamped with run-of-mill thinkers and philosophers like myself. And that would just kill my vibe.

Either way, I’m always surprised to find that others do the same. Today, a kooky woman parked her car next to me and proceeded to empty out the contents of her trunk and back seat into the mesh wire garbage bin planted in front of the man-made pond. Afterwords, she just…chilled…in her back seat, retrieving pieces of paper off her car floor and reading aloud to herself (I could tell; her lips were moving). My first thought? Are she and I the same breed?

Speaking of backseats. When I initially pulled into said park, an Acura SUV had been trailing behind me. Get off my ass, I’m thinking. You’re really staring to irritate me, Lady (introverted philosopher or not, I’m still from Northern Jersey). She kept moving her vehicle to the side, like she wanted to blast past me, but kept herself from doing it. She pulled into the same parking lot I did–naturally– and by this point my ‘Zen Zone’ was wavering. She breaks next to a black Mercedes. An older man steps out from the Benz, and leans into the talk to the aggressive Acura driver. Meanwhile, I kill my ignition and wait. I’m just dying to see what the bitch who was trailing me looks like. When she gets out of the car–I’d say mid-forties, long reddish hair, in shape–and she and the old man slip into the back seat, which by the way is clandestinely hidden by oh-so-illegal tinted windows. Valentine’s Day affair? I kept waiting for the car start rocking back and forth.

A little while later, a man in mid-fifties parks to the other side of me. The second he shifts gears he rubs his face with his hands. I hear you, Man, I thinking. I need it too. When a flock of geese take off in a V-Shaped flight, beckoning loudly enough for the world to hear, his eyes follow them as mine do, and again…I’m surprised. I’m surprised to find there are others like me.

I think as intrinsic writers, if we pay attention, there are cues and stories all over the place. Parks and sanctuaries, though they seem uneventful, are a haven for those who want to shut down. Who want to watch the simplistic lives of wildfowl. Who think they can be themselves because no one else is watching…

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