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The Importance Of Adventure

As writers, we are privileged to be able to create our own adventures on the pages before us. Want to take a camel ride across the Sahara? Have a car chase down the unrealistically empty streets of New York City? Join a triskadekaphobic group of dwarves on a search for lost treasure? All you have to do is pull up a Word document and you’re set! 

However, this becomes a problem when our writing takes the place of adventure, when real life experiences start taking a backseat to written ones. When we start justifying the lack of excitement in our own lives by saying that we’ve created a rich and exotic existence on paper, there is something wrong.

In his blog, Warnimont says:

“There is a valuable area that tends to go overlooked while developing an effective writing platform: experience. When I say experience, I don’t necessarily mean writing experience or schooling, rather personal experiences that make life enjoyable, while making you more cultured and strengthening your writing inspiration.”

You don’t necessarily need to do THIS . . .

If we fail to get out of the house and actually live, not only are we cheating ourselves out of the adventures we crave (and therefore write about), we are cheating our readers out of vivid and honest stories as well. If you do not experience the rush of adrenaline, feel the wind in your hair and the cramp in your side, smell the tarmac burning under the hot sun, and taste the salt of your own sweat running down your face, how can you relate a breathless, seat-of-the-pants chase to readers who expect and deserve nothing less?

“Getting away from your computer and experiencing the world around you is an important factor in becoming a great writer since credibility is built through these experiences. Also, you are given the opportunity to have some fun!”

Not only is this beneficial to your writing – getting out of your chair and engaging in activities can also reduce the risks of becoming trapped in a sedentary lifestyle – an issue that every writer has to deal with. Living most of your life in a sitting position is, believe it or not, something that can substantially shorten your life. Here are just a couple of the risks that people who live sedentary lifestyles face.

How do I go out and have adventures?

True, it’s not as easy as Hollywood makes it seem. Adventures are shy things, and don’t just stand there on the side of the road with their thumbs out, waiting to be picked up. You have to go out and make them. And no, I’m not talking about finding a ring of power to destroy, or applying to a secret agency, or holding up a bank (please do not hold up any banks!)

You can have small adventures anywhere – and then expand on those small adventures to make them something worthy to be written about. For example, in this article on How To Be Adventurous , one of the suggestions is to

You get the idea

Put a new twist on the same old thing. Come into your house through your window instead of your front door.”

This is a good way to start. See how it really feels to come through a window, and then go and write about exactly how you were scared the pane was going to close on you, or how you had to remove the screen first and then figure out how to put it back on once you were inside, or how the window was too high to reach so you had to drag a garden bench over to give you a boost. You might even want to incorporate the looks of alarm your neighbors were giving you, and how you had to explain that yes, you did live there, you were just trying to be adventurous. It will add credibility to your writing, and make it easier for you to write about, because you no longer have to sit there and agonize over what it might feel like.

Here are some other ideas on how to be adventurous:

  • Borrow a shopping cart from a store parking lot, fill it with something strange (like books or apples), and roll it along the highway.
  • Go on a setting hunt. Take a camera and drive around to places you’ve never been, looking for good ideas for settings. Get out of the car, take pictures from different angles, but be subtle about it so that no one thinks you’re casing the place.
  • Walk to a place you would usually drive to.
  • Make a picnic lunch and go somewhere green – preferably somewhere that is new and relatively secluded.
  • Wait for the next rain storm, bundle up, get your iPod out, and blast some epic movie soundtrack while you walk in the rain.
  • Hitchhike somewhere.
  • Dress in something ridiculous and go to work like that.
  • Talk to strangers, ask them their life stories.

You get the idea. Adventures are everywhere, if you look. And any one of these things could potentially be developed into fodder for your next novel. 

 A few last notes:

  1. The first step is to get outside of your comfort zone. If you’re still in it, you’re not on an adventure yet.
  2. If you’re feeling less than motivated, imagine if your favorite fictional hero or heroine had said “I’m sorry, I can’t be bothered.”
  3. Never do anything unsafe or illegal!
  4. That being said, don’t be afraid to do things that are stupid or take risks (within certain limits)
  5. DON’T FORGET TO BRING A NOTEBOOK ALONG WITH YOU! You will need to jot down things right away to avoid losing them.
 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in Writing

 

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Identity vs. Career: The “Writer or Author” Debate Simplified

As you may have noticed from my previous posts, I opt to use the word Writer as opposed to the word Author. Why make the distinction? What is the difference between the two?

Many people would seem to be under the impression that being an Author is better than or preferable to being a Writer. Why is this? Maybe because it sounds more prestigious? Maybe because, as Jo Eberhardt puts it in her blog,

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that anyone can claim to be a writer, but an author has super-powers, writes at lightning speed, kills bad plot bunnies with nothing but a red pen, and rescues kittens before breakfast.

This is true, in a sense. Not the super-powers part – the part about anyone being able to claim to be a Writer. That is what makes being a Writer so wonderful. Anyone can do it. It comes with no prerequisites, no contracts . . . not even skill or talent is necessary for one to be a Writer. You’ve simply got to enjoy what you do.

Another part of this definition is simply technicalities. One needs to publish something in order to be considered an Author. Dean Wesley Smith sums it up like this:

— A Writer is a person who writes.

— An Author is a person who has written.

Chances are this guy isn’t an Author just yet – but he is a Writer.

In other words, being an Author is largely dependent upon others, about how well you are liked or appreciated – it is a state of interdependence between many different subsets: you, your agent, your editor, your publisher, your audience, etc. You don’t need anyone else to be a Writer. You write, and that is that.

Of course, Writers can become Authors, but be warned – if you start identifying yourself as an Author and leave the title of Writer behind you, chances are you are focusing more on the finished product and your own image than the art of actually putting words onto paper. This is bad. Every Author must first and foremost be a Writer, simply because the word Author puts the emphasis on the person, whereas the word Writer puts emphasis on the craft, where it should be.

Finally, interchangeability between these two words has nothing to do with level of skill or talent. There are talented Authors and there are Writers who are just as talented. In fact, I would go so far as to say that often Writers are more talented than Authors (see my previous post “How To Read Books Without Going Crazy” .) So regardless of how you choose to identify yourself, know that it has no bearing on how good you are at the craft.

The author of the blog Chronicles of Harriet sums up the difference the most eloquently:

Being a writer is an identity; being an author is a career.

That is why I choose to identify myself – and to address the readers of my blog – as Writers rather than Authors. It is who we are, regardless of what else we decide to do with our lives. We could be students, lawyers, plumbers, doctors, maintenance workers, or circus performers, but we are always Writers.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Writing

 

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Writing For Fun, Not Profit

 blog_publishing3Your parent/best friend/significant other looks up from the manuscript of your latest chapter. They sigh in appreciation, nod their head several times, and then utter the dreaded words:

“This is great, honey . . . When are you planning on publishing?”

They explain that the publishing market is looking for young blood, and the longer you wait, the older you get and the less sensational your book will be. You can only be a prodigee for so long. They tell you that your work is good enough that if you would just commit, do a couple revisions and a little research, within a few weeks, you’ll be signing a book contract. Not only that, you’ll be making money!

“Agents?” they say. “You don’t need an agent!”

“Query letters?” they say. “A simple: ‘Hello, would you publish my book please?’ should suffice.”

“Editors?” they say. “They’re just there to make sure you put your semi-colons in the right places.”

To them, the publishing game works like it does in Graham Greene’s world:

‘”I’ve read your novel,” he said. “We’d like to publish it. Would it be possible for you to look in here at eleven?”

Except it doesn’t. And we writers know it.

Why all the rush to get published NOW? The concept of needing time to perfect the writing craft does not seem to be something people can grasp. If you’ve strung together enough sentences to fill up a novel-length manuscript, regardless of tact or talent, it’s time to get in the publishing game.blog_publishing1

My advice:

Don’t let people badger or bully you into throwing your newborn book into the cold hard lap of the corporate business world. If you don’t feel ready, then you aren’t ready. Write for fun. Write for self-fulfillment. You’ve got time. If you’re any good now, you’ll only get better.

Granted, maybe publishing houses are putting out a lot of books by young adults, but how many are they putting out by mature, fully-grown authors? And really, I realize that the novella you wrote when you were fifteen – the one about the talking warrior tadpoles? – won you first prize in a scholastic achievement competition, but do you really want that hanging over your head when you’re trying to pitch a crime thriller or a biography twenty years later?

Murder In The Dead Of Night by Jane Doe, award-winning author of The Hoppity Legend of Tadpole Pond.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2013 in Writing

 

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Your Creative Writing Teacher Was Wrong

Write what you know Mark Twain courtesy of Bing images

This is probably one of the first things you will ever hear out of a writing teacher’s mouth. (This, and “Show, don’t tell.”) It is also probably the most terrible quote in the history of literary instruction.

This is because people take it literally.

One main agreement by many authors is that when you actually get down to writing a story or piece of writing is that you should only write about what you actually have experienced or know about. Nick Sanders

Of course, if you were Mark Twain – living in a slave state during the Civil War, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi – then maybe this would work. But when your life is comprised of classes, homework, a boring job, marital spats, paying bills and/or changing diapers, just the thought about writing what you know could put you to sleep.

There are only three reasons anyone would support taking the saying “Write what you know” literally:

1) They want it to be easy. Don’t want to waste your time doing research? Don’t have good resources? Got an approaching deadline? No problem! Just write what you know! Instant material with minimum effort!

2) They want to play it safe. We’ve all been at that place: “Was cotton an everyday fabric in the Wild West? Could you actually jump over a motion-detecting laser without setting off the alarm? Would someone from the 1970s use the phrase ‘Yo dawg’?” You’re not sure. You are sure, however, that your readers will catch the little gaps in your knowledge and POOF! your credibility will be out the window. Better stick to writing what you know.

3) They are missing the point. Yes, writing what you know might convince readers of your authenticity, sell you as an authority on a subject, and make your book believable (all this, of course, so long as you avoid boring everyone to death). But that’s not the point of writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing is for self-expression and personal fulfillment. Anything that follows – publication, money, a devout audience – is just a bonus.

I don’t know about you, but I write to escape the monotony of my everyday life. The last thing I want is to bring that monotony onto the page. I want to know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Fly an airplane. Train-hop. Shoot a crossbow. See a ghost. I have never done any of these things. Nor do I necessarily have previous, similar experiences from which I can draw.

“Writing what you know” is kind of like saying: “Go on an adventure – but just don’t leave the block, ok?” I’m writing what I don’t know. And that’s the whole point.

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last  instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a  labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?P. J. O’Rourke

Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words. Valerie Sherwood

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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How To Read Books Without Going Crazy

Reading not only improves writing and knowledge but gives you an idea of the craft! It is important to read good books and retain them. You cannot absorb new ideas, improve vocabulary or writing unless you read.” (The Writing Pages)

You will put down most of these before you hit twenty pages.

This is wonderful advice, and I could not agree more with the sentiment. But tell me if you have experienced a similar dilemma:

You go to the library, looking for “good books” (not to study for writerly purposes but simply to enjoy). You get a couple novels that look very promising, and check them out. When you get home, you crack open the first volume with excitement. Halfway through chapter one, however, your enthusiasm has gone down several notches. You start picking the narrative apart.

Maybe poor sentence structure is making it difficult to read:

Putting clauses at the beginnings of sentences, the writer’s word order is unnecessarily complicated, or maybe the writer enjoys including multiple commas, or incorporating multi-syllable words to exaggerate his or her verbose and undeniably loquacious lexicon, or maybe they are too many run-on sentences that just won’t stop until you’re completely lost and can’t even remember where the sentence began or what the point was . . .

Maybe there is too much description and not enough dialogue:

The forest was beautiful in the afternoon, the paths speckled with sunlight and shadow that were constantly moving and swirling in complex patterns. The trees towered overhead, moss clinging to the branches, which were swaying in the gentle western breeze that flowed across their leafy heads like a caressing hand. It was almost eerily silent, the only sounds the creake of the trees and the rustle of underbrush as the squirrels and birds forraged for food. There was the sound of a distant river babbling as well . . . etc. etc.

Maybe there is too much meaningless dialogue:

“Hello.”

“Hey.”

“How are you?”

“Good, how are you?”

“Not bad. It looks like rain.”

“It rained yesterday.”

“I know. My newspaper is still damp.”

“What paper are you subscribed to?”

“The Times. How about you?”

Maybe the plot is awkwardly handled, giving you obnxious “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” attempts at foreshadowing that clue you in not only to the plot but also to the fact that the writer thinks you are too stupid to figure anything out on your own:

This is an understatement.

 Mr. Jones almost took his gun with him. But he decided against it. There was no need to bring it. “It’s not like the mobster to whom I owe money and who I cannot pay would send his thugs out after me TODAY. I only need to walk down three or four dark abandoned alleys on my way to the office . . .”

Or maybe the characters just have no life of their own and are two-dimensional and cliched:

John Smith was tall, dark, and handsome. From his classy sense of fashion, one would never have guessed that he was actually a starving artist who spent his days on the streets of New York City. And despite his moody, brooding exterior, he was actually a romantic at heart who was looking for love.

Whatever the reason (and these are only a few), you find yourself putting the book down a few chapters in. And this process is repeated with the next book and the next and the next. The worst part is you are no longer surprised by this form of literary betrayal. In fact, you have begun to expect it and when you find a book that actually grabs you, it is a pleasant surprise.

Why is this? After all, these poor excuses for fiction got published and are obviously selling, so is it just us? Well, yes. I honestly believe it is. We are writers. We are extremely critical (and extremely competitive) of each other, especially when one of us is published and the other one is not.

Not only this: we have had it drilled into us by our parents, teachers, and/or mentors that if we want to write well, we need to read “good books”, study and analyze them, draw lessons from them.

The blog Write To Done says:

Break down the books you read . . . Why did the writer make the choices she made? How did she create the characters and convey their qualities? How did she start the book and lay out the plot? How is the theme of the book conveyed throughout the book.

This is all well and good. But this has been so ingrained in us that we cannot simply read “for pleasure” anymore. Reading is no longer a leisure activity. By habit, we are constantly analyzing, comparing, evaluating. And the problem is that nintey percent of the time, these pursuits leave us wincing instead of nodding in appreciation.

So what do we do?

Someday we can hope to aspire to this

We just keep telling ourselves: “I am NOT going to learn anything from this book. This book has a right to be dumb, because it is not here to teach me anything.”

Just because a book has been published does not put it in a position of authority, the same way that everyone who graduates from college is not immediately qualified for a teaching position. Once we are aware of our inherent assumption that we are going to learn something from a book, we can decide to ignore it. Yes, be aware that it is poorly written, but be willing to look past that. In essence, I am telling you to force yourself to read for pleasure.

It will take practice, but with commitment and determination, I am certain that we can learn to blind ourselves to the inadequate skill of the majority of the literary world and begin to appreciate poor fiction once again.  (Just be sure to not pick up any of their bad habits.)

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in Writing

 

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Embracing The Darkness

courtesy of Bing images As a writer, I avoid writing disturbing scenes because it’s so easy for people to misunderstand the author’s intent. (Commenter on “Writing Disturbing Scenes“)

You have mapped out your plotline, determining in cold blood which character will commit murder, which one will steal, and which one will be sexually assaulted. You are feeling slightly uncomfortable, and this squeamishness triples when you actually sit down to write out the scenes in all their gory, disgusting detail.

What is worse, you hate to admit it to yourself, but you are actually kind of enjoying it. Of course you are. No one is pulling your teeth making you write this. You sat down at your own accord and pulled up that Word document without anyone threatening your physical wellbeing, bank account, or extended relations.

Feeling guilty yet? Join the club.

I have written [disturbing/violent] scenes from both POVs. I find that it is by far easier to describe the horrors from the “recipient’s” POV. It is also by far easier to describe the recipient’s feelings. It hurts, stop, the horror. Yet, it is
when I write from the POV of the person inflicting the pain that I find the writing experience to be rewarding. (“Writing Disturbing Scenes“)

There are two important things to keep in mind when writing something especially dark:

1) It’s not you. Often writers get so involved with their characters that they begin to connect with them on a very intimate level (as is likely to happen when you spend that much time inside someone else’s head).

Tamara Hanson advises writers to “connect with your characters . . . All you need to do is stop the chatter in your mind and let the characters take over. Once you do, you will find that they are almost writing the story for you.” And sometimes these characters run wild, whether by design or by happy surprise. (see “Unreliable Narrator” for an example of how a character’s voice can legally differ from the writer’s.)

Your character, if he or she is a strong one, will have opinions that you do not. They will do things that you would not. I personally make a point not to swear often, but I am more than comfortable to write a character with a mouth like a drunk truckdriver. Because that is the character. Not me. courtesy of Bing images

For example: I highly doubt that J.K. Rowling would practice or endorse the teaching methods of Dolores Umbridge. However, that did not stop her from writing one of the most hated characters in Harry Potter.

This is all well and good, you say. But regardless of whether you technically are the character or not, you are still writing them. All that darkness is still coming from you, right? Shouldn’t that worry you?

2) To quote Kelly Clarkson: “Everybody’s got a dark side”. Yes, you’ve got darkness in you. I have, as well. I am not going to try and convince you that it’s all rainbows and sunshine in there – we both know that it’s not true. For either of us. courtesy of Bing images

What I suggest you do is embrace the darkness. I’m not talking about becoming Darth Vader, or even be happy about its presence. But accepting that its completely normal to have a dark side and realizing that you can utilize it to better your craft is the first step to creating amazing work.

For example: Consider some of the most enduring work in literature, whether it is Wuthering Heights or Lord of the Rings. If those authors had not reached deeply enough inside themselves to find their inner darkness and used it to form their stories, would they be as longlasting? Would they be as revered? Chances are they probably would not.

So, this is my advice to you: Regardless of the blemishes found there . . .

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart (William Wordsworth)

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Writing

 

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“Let Me Count The Ways”: In Defense Of The Amateur Love Poem

“Don’t write love poems.”

This is the advice that author John Baker gives in his blog.

“Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile or commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you.”

This theory is extremely convicting. Reading the love sonnets of William Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning will give any aspiring love poet a slap in the face. How could I say any better what they have already said? 

Three Reasons To Avoid Writing Love Poetry:

1) Love is the oldest and most famous theme for poetry or any other medium. Trying to find new ways to express love can be excrutiating and leave you feeling like you’re simply rephrasing other people’s work.

2) There is a lot of it. The sheer bulk of love poetry out there (both famous and amateur) will very possibly keep yours from being noticed or given the aplomb it may deserve.

3) People force it. They write love poetry for the sake of writing love poetry, and this makes it ten times more difficult to write with any sincerity or originality.

Having acknowledged the challenges to writing love poetry, let me tell you what I really think. I disagree strongly with John Baker’s theory, and here is why.

Problems With John Baker’s Theory:

1) It is discouraging. Imagine if someone had told Elizabeth Barrett Browning not to write love poetry because Shakespeare said it the best. Besides, if there is one thing you should not say to an aspiring writer is “You can’t, because someone else will always do it better.”

I had an English professor once who told a classmate that if he couldn’t write a comedy about friendship better than The Odd Couple then he shouldn’t even try. The sad part is that he didn’t try, and what could have been America’s next top-rated sitcom was lost to “expert advice”.

2) It is untrue. People don’t care about whether or not your poetry has “great, fully-matured power” behind it. If it does, that’s wonderful, congratulations. They want to relate to it. They want it to be original. And that’s something you can do.

Everyone experiences love differently, is in love with a different person, and has gone through unique experiences while in the thrall of said love. Granted, it will be difficult to bring fresh words to the oldest and most well-known themes in the universe, but you can do it if you are sincere. And being sincere is all that matters.

3) It misses the whole point. So you cannot write love poetry as well as the Great Dead Ones of the nineteenth century So what? Writing is about self-expression. Anything that comes after that self-expression is simply a bonus.

Love begs expression more than any other emotion, and therefore begs to be written about. So indulge yourself! And even if no one else reads it or likes it, what matters is that you stretched your literary muscles and achieved something you might have thought you couldn’t do.

If you want proof that good love poetry is still alive and kicking, just visit any writing website. Hello Poetry is a good place to start. That’s where I found this little gem, which bravely begins:

i’ve been
reading poetry
ee cummings and–
sylvia plath
pretty pools of words filled with color

–and ducks

. . .

they talk about love like it’s
broken–painful–deadly–
always wonderfully beautiful
(like the beautiful snake whose
poison’s killing you)

that’s not
love

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in Writing

 

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