Fiction as Theology Part 1: Is Fiction Theology and If So, What does this Mean?

waffles-vs-pancakesYesterday I started reading John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship Volume 3: Doctrine of the Christian Life. I bring this up because Frame makes the claim in his introduction that life is theology and theology is ethics, thus life is ethics. Now, he explains that by this he does not mean that there God is desperately interested in whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast in the morning, and thus my decision between pancakes and waffles is both a theologically significant and morally important decision. However, if I am to understand the purpose of my existence as being to glorify God (consider that Colossians 1:16 tells us that everything exists 1) because God made it, and 2) for God’s purposes) then the way I approach my decision about having pancakes or waffles (or perhaps sausage and eggs or a bowl of fruit) fundamentally changes. No longer am I considering this decision simply as a matter of preference, but I am considering how to best glorify God–which inevitably involves my own enjoyment of his creation, my health as a human being, the example that I am setting for others, the habits that I am forming as an individual, etc. Suddenly my decision about what to have for breakfast is no longer merely a choice of which tastes I prefer this morning, but it is a matter of 1) who I am as an individual and who I want to become as an individual, 2) what the likely results of my actions are, 3) what the intrinsic nature of my actions is, and 4) how my actions express the image of God that I bear. Now, all of this may sound unbearably and unnecessarily complex for those non-Christians reading this post. However, I might point out that this is not wholly dissimilar to Aristotle’s perspective, though with an eye towards the Christian God. More importantly, I might point that that any belief system requires a focus. For me this focus is God, for a Muslim it may be Allah, for an Atheist it may be their own good or some abstracted concept of the common good. Now, as a Christian I will argue that some of these foci are more intrinsically valuable than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a focus to each of them. Every action is performed for an end–even when that end isn’t consciously considered.

blind-beliefSome of you may also be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with writing fiction, and I’m getting to that, though this is only the first of three posts. Reading Frame’s argument got me thinking: is writing a theological practice? If life is theology and theology is ethics, then it must necessarily include that fiction writing is a practice of theology which is in turn an application of ethics. Thus, all fiction writing would be the practice of theology. How might this be so? Does this mean that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a work of practical theology? Well, when practical theology is considered as a discipline, not so much. However, when practical theology is defined as the application of one’s beliefs about god, gods, or the lack thereof to some particular aspect of life in this world, then yes, in a sense it is. I must stress this in a sense because Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while certainly a work of political philosophy, says little, if anything, about God. However, consider that everything we write is set on the basis of our fundamental notions*. A friend recently described Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to me as ‘very clearly a Mormon fantasy,’ and he was exactly correct. Sanderson is a Mormon and this particular series is very clearly a fantasy (well-written and well-plotted) that is heavily influenced by a Mormon conception of god, life, and the universe. What we believe often has a much greater influence on what we write than we realize. Often, even when we go out of our way to write something that is fundamentally not what we believe, it still clearly communicates to others what we believe.

trust_me__i__m_ten___t_shirt_design_by_lantis_erin-d52yu6xSo, what do we do with this knowledge? What does this mean for Christian, Atheist, Mormon, Hindu, Agnostic, Wiccan, or generally confused writers? First, I will point out that it is fundamentally impossible to not have beliefs. As soon as we are exposed to something we begin to form beliefs and opinions about it. These may be more or less informed, more or less accurate, more or less consistent with other beliefs, etc. However, the only way to have no beliefs at all is to not exist, and the only way to have no beliefs about some particular idea or thing is to never be exposed to it. So, in my next two posts I’m going to focus on two questions: 1) how can my writing help me to explore my own beliefs and discover inconsistencies in them? 2) how can my writing help me to communicate my beliefs effectively to others?

I hope that you’re looking forward to them. I’m looking forward to writing them, that’s for sure.

* This is true whether one holds to a historicist, empirical, constructivist, etc theory of knowledge. Regardless of what knowledge inherently is or how beliefs are initially acquired, once we have established a set of consistent beliefs or biases the rest of our interaction with the world (both input and output) tends to be defined around these beliefs and to reference them regularly.

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

What Happens When I Don’t Have Anything Left to Say

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockThere are any number of causes behind writer’s block. Perhaps you haven’t really thought through a scene, or perhaps you’re characters just aren’t cooperating and you don’t know why. Perhaps there’s some underdeveloped foundational area of research or creative work that you need to spend more time on, or perhaps you’re just stumped about how to get your characters from A to C without going through B (where B is some undesirable element of story or characterization). These are all legitimate reasons to struggle, and these are all things that many writers struggle with. Creativity is hard work, and sometimes it just takes effort to get through the block. However, there is a more pernicious cause of writer’s block, and even more grievously, or plain bad writing: a lack of message.

We’ve all read books that were shallow. They fill the shelves of your local book store and your local library. They have flat characters, uninteresting story lines, and seemingly meaningless plot twists. The only purpose for which they exist is to sell copies, make people money, and maybe give you some mild entertainment for a few hours. I call this bad writing because even though it can be formally excellent, it is devoid of substance. It’s like a five-star Filet Mignon that turns out to be made of tofu, or like eating cheetos… for anyone who doesn’t know, I hate cheetos. Sometimes you really want mindless drivel, just like sometimes you really want tofu or fake-cheese powder. However, no one in their right mind would call tofu steak, cheetos nourishing, or shallow fiction great literature.

guard2However, I think that its worth asking where such bad writing comes from in the first place, and I am convinced that it comes from the same place as one of the main causes of writer’s block. When you have something that is worth saying, have done your research, worked out the details of your world, understand your characters, and planned out your story, the actually writing part tends to come fairly easily. Its usually when one of these is missing that writer’s block sets in. That being said, I think the the most important of these is the first: having something that is worth saying. When my fiction has a purpose, when I am trying to express something that is meaningful to me, it tends to be much better. Even fiction that is not exceptional formally can be very enjoyable and captivating when it has a clear purpose: when its alive. A good example of this is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land. Both of these are wonderful novels that do not excel formally. In Starship Troopers Heinlein tends to use his characters as mouthpieces, and some of the characters are under-developed. In Stranger in a Strange Land the characters as a whole tend to be under-developed and at times it is difficult to follow the course of the story. However, in both novels his message is clear. The same criticisms can apply to much of Ayn Rand’s work, and yet Atlas Shrugged is still selling copies more than thirty years after her death.

So, the question is: what do we do when we’ve said what we wanted to say? I think that there are three major options:

Streets-of-Blood-cover1) Write Bad Fiction: as I said above, there’s a place for it. Sometimes I want to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but sometimes I want to read Never Deal with a Dragon or Streets of Blood (I’ve been on a Shadowrun kick lately). I don’t expect the later to live up to the high standard set by the former. In fact, I don’t expect much from them at all except a few hours entertainment in a setting that I love. So, I think that there is a legitimate choice here, though I certainly hope that writing bad fiction won’t be a permanent choice.

2) Do Something Else: the vast majority of my favorite writers didn’t spend their entire lives writing. Some of them didn’t even spend most of their lives writing. David Eddings was a soldier, a purchaser for Boeing, and a college lecturer as well as a writer. Isaac Asimov was a soldier and a Biochemist as well as a writer. Frank Herbert was a journalist for much of his life. Robert Heinlein was a sailor, a miner, and a failed politician as well as a writer. And Steven Erikson is an anthropologist and archaeologist. So, if you don’t have something that’s worth saying, its perfectly valid to go and do something else for a while. Maybe you’ll return to writing, hopefully you’ll bring back a lot of experiences that will make your stories that much better. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll contribute to the world in some other way. However, for many of the greats writing has been something that they did along with life, not the center and goal of their life.

3) Find A New Message: you might actually do this by doing something else for a while. However, if the best writing has a purpose and a point, and if you’ve made yours already then maybe the best thing to do is to find something else that’s worth saying. Of course, you could just make the same point over and over again, there are plenty of authors writing both fiction and non-fiction who do this, but that can get tedious after a while. However, you are in the midst of an entire world worth of possibilities, ideas, arguments, and beliefs. Find one to support (hopefully a good one, I’m not encouraging you to go out and write something glorifying and defending slavery or mass murder), and write something that does so in a meaningful, interesting way. Don’t be random about this, but find something that you actually believe in, and that you actually know something about.

So, this is my advice for when you don’t have anything left to say. I’ve been majoring on the second for the last year (of course, between work, school, and relationship I haven’t really had time for writing fiction), and if I get into a Ph.D. program I might be focusing on the second one for a while longer. However, what you decide to do is up to you.

Oversentimentality: Don’t Manipulate Your Audience

book thiefA few weeks ago, I went to see The Book Thief at the local Dollar Theater. [NOTE: vague spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, skip this introduction]. The movie was well-written, and I enjoyed it…mostly. Near the end, there’s a bomb strike and multiple characters die. Their death scenes were very powerful and poignant because the entire scene was understated. It was narrated by Death himself, and he spoke a few words about each character that reminded you just why you cared about them. I’m not ashamed to admit that this particular scene made me tear up; it was that well-written. It all fell apart in the next scene, however. A young girl holds her dying friend in her arms and he chokes out “I love…” just before he expires. At that point, the girl starts screaming and passes out. A soldier picks her up and starts slow-mo running towards the camera while dramatic, emotional music plays in the background. It was at this point that I got very angry with the directors. That entire scene was specifically designed to elicit a particular emotion from the audience. It practically begs you to cry, and it pulls out every stop to ensure that you do. I really hate it when movie directors or writers obviously try to force me to have a specific reaction…I don’t react well to manipulation, particularly when it’s so blatant. In this case, the sin was particularly egregious because the scene before it was so well done. At any rate, this entire long introduction serves to say that I want to spend today’s post talking about how to identify oversentimentality in your writing (and why it’s a bad thing) and how to avoid it.

So what exactly is oversentimentality? In this case, it’s manipulating your audience into experiencing a certain emotion, often sadness or martin 2nostalgia. Before everyone gets all up in arms here, let me say that I know we want people to feel certain things through our writings, particularly when it comes to poetry. We want people to empathize or react a certain way based on the circumstances we portray. What I’m talking about is doing so in a kitschy way that is forcibly created by you, the author, and doesn’t arise out of the text naturally. It’s easier to spot in movies because of music choice, camera angles, slow-mo movement, and so on, but it can be just as devastating in literature as it is in film. An author usually slides into oversentimentality when he or she drags out an emotional scene so that the reader is hit with every possible little detail that could cause a specific reaction. This frequently happens in death scenes when the author wants the reader to upset at the loss of a character. Often, this takes the form of an unnecessarily vivid or visceral description of the death itself (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin), or an in-depth depiction of everyone else’s response to the loss (some of Brian Jacques’ later novels have scenes that stray into this category). When an author forces a certain response from the reader, he or she divorces the emotion from the text. It detracts from the story because it’s not true to the story or the characters you’ve created. When I saw that particular scene in The Book Thief, it completely pulled me out of the story and made me angry because it was so blatantly manipulative. It was forced and not real, and it completely ruined the ending of the film for me. I’ve read books that cause me to have the same reaction – I respond to the word choice and technique, not to the actual event or because of the character(s), which is a problem. Not just that, but it often makes the reader feel talked-down to. It’s as if the author/film director believes the audience is incapable of experiencing the sadness/nostalgia/whatever of the scene without being prompted along. So if the manipulation weren’t enough, the condescension makes everything worse. It’s annoying, and few people respond well to it.

sadHow do you identify and avoid emotional manipulation in your writing? Well, there is no clear cut “do this and you’ll avoid the problem” formula, but I can offer some tips. Whenever you write an emotional scene, put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Examine it thoroughly. Does each description need to be there? Are the characters reacting the way they really would in that situation, or are they overdramatic? Do you have too many descriptions? (Also: if it’s a death scene, is it raining? If there’s rain involved in the scene, you may have a problem). Have someone else read the passage for you. How do they respond to it? I usually have a list of questions ready for my peer editor for when he or she is done reading, so that I can judge the responses and tweak my work accordingly. Above all, don’t set out trying to make your reader experience a certain emotion. Let the text go where it will, tweaking as needed, but don’t set about trying to force it. Audiences don’t respond well to manipulation, and it won’t help you at all with your writing. Emotion is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.

Go With the Flow

mythsandpropagandaSomething that I can say without any doubt is that as writers we have all had moments where the words just stopped. It’s not that I don’t have a story to tell (okay, sometimes it is), but that I just don’t know how to tell that story in any way that seems even remotely satisfactory. The words that should be coming out with easy aplomb simply stop, and if I can get them out at all, it is only with an effort that makes smashing rocks look like easy work. Of course, this kind of writers block is frustrating, especially when you have deadlines, or even worse, a story that you really want to tell, but can’t. So, one of the things that a writer has to master is the art of going with the flow. We all know that muses are fickle beings, and much as (sometimes) we’d all like to chain up our muse in the closet so that he’ll/she’ll be within easy reach for a quick smack whenever necessary, life just doesn’t work that way. Even if it did doing something like that would probably be considered kidnapping.

So, when inspiration strikes go with it, even if that inspiration takes you to weird places. This past week I sat down to write what was supposed to be the start of a story. What I got was the introduction to a fictional research paper, written by a fictional author, in a fictional world. Nonetheless, it’s been an interesting project (I’m about half-way through), and thoroughly enjoyable. So far I think that it’s also quite good. Needless to say this isn’t what I’d planned to write. Really, I was pretty surprised at what it turned into, especially when I put in the first footnote. However, as I said above, when inspiration strikes you have to go with the flow.

Pushing limits is also something that is important for artists of any kind. This doesn’t mean that limits shouldn’t be respected (some of them are there for very good reasons), but never be afraid to try something new. This has certainly been new for me, but I have to say that it flows well into my own style. I’m used to academic writing, and I’m fairly good at it. Applying that to fictional purposes simply hadn’t occurred to me before. I have no doubt that others have done this before (in fact I’m fairly sure that both Terry Prachett and Douglas Adams had something similar), but it certainly isn’t common, and we all like to be unique… right?

Regardless, I’ve said before and I’ll continue to say: write what you write. Don’t try to be your favorite author because you never will be. No matter how much you try you will never be J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Clive Cussler, or Stephen King. No matter how much I want to I will never be H.P. Lovecraft, Glen Cook, or Steven Erikson. It won’t happen because it shouldn’t happen. Trust me, one Steven Erikson is enough for the world. As writers we all have our own unique voices and we need to find those voices instead of trying to copy the voices of others. Focus on developing the way you write and if that means trying something new then go for it. Maybe you’ll invent a new genre.

Finding Your Voice for the Story

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Whenever I write a long story, when I finish, I have to return to the beginning and rewrite the first section or to. This is true of most of the writers I know and there is a very simple reason: the voice of the story changes. I’ve written before (a long time ago) about finding your voice as an author, and Freedomchic, Selanya, and Paul have all written about issues touching on the issue of voice. However, if you aren’t familiar with the idea of ‘voice’, the concept is fairly simple. You’re voice as an author is your particular style, the panache or joie de vivre that you as an author bring to the story that makes it come to live. This is very different from the type or style of writing that you do (i.e. academic, journalistic, fiction, etc), or the genre in which you write (i.e. mystery, fantasy, thriller, etc). Your voice is what makes your writing stand out from all the other people writing essentially the same thing. Are you snarky, cynical, happy-go-lucky, humorous, surreal, dark, etc. What combination of the above do you bring to the table?

Just like you have a voice as an author, each story will also have a voice all its own. For instance, you might be writing a story that is whimsical, terrifying, tragic, or exciting. Each character in your story will also have his or her own voice. Consider Les Miserable: Jaen Valjaen, Fantine, and Javert all have very different voices that add different elements to the story. These voices intermingle to create the overwhelming mixture of hope, strength, obsession, and tragedy that make Les Miserable a classic as a novel, an opera, and a movie, and through it all the voice of Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Miserable) shines through with unmistakable clarity.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

In fact, one of the reasons that Frank Herbert’s Dune is a masterpiece (arguably the best science fiction novel ever written) is that he interweaves not only the external voices, but also the internal voices of a great many powerful characters into a novel that not only makes sense, but conquers the imagination. With so many voices speaking at once the reader should be overwhelmed (as is the case with the vast majority of third person omniscient novels, and with the original Dune movies), but Herbert makes each voice so unique that they are not easily confused.

So, when you start writing a story, the first task is to find the individual voices of each character, and discern how those voices intermingle to create an overall voice for your story. It often takes a chapter or two to do this, and that’s alright. This isn’t something that you need to worry about. It does mean some rewriting when you finish the story to ensure that the first sections actually blend well with the rest of the story, but it isn’t really too much work, and if you can get the voice right early, then you have even less to worry about. So, get out there, get writing, and have fun!

Balance in Writing

NarrativeControlProse is a delicate balance of dialogue, action, description, and narrative. Too much or too little of any of these, and you lose the balance and your reader gets board or frustrated and walks away. Thing is, every author creates his or her own balance. For instance, Frank Herbert has a massive amount of description in his writing, and comparatively little dialogue. However, Herbert’s description is fascinating. I’ve been told a number of times, and I have to agree, that while reading Herbert’s descriptions of the desert in Dune your mouth dries out and you start feeling hot. Compare this to Glen Cook, who has a lot of dialogue and action with relatively little description, or Clive Cussler, who has a lot of action and less description and dialogue, and it’s easy to feel more than a little confused about how writing actually works. Here’s the thing: the balance is your own, but the balance is still important.

balanceFirst of all, remember that you can’t please everyone. Every reader is going to like or dislike something different about your writing. Sometimes one reader will be bored with something another reader finds intriguing. Sometimes one reader will be put off by something another reader enjoys. I think I’ve said this before, but remember that while there are plenty of things that everyone agrees is bad writing, there is almost nothing that everyone agrees is good writing. I know people who scoff at Stephen King, look down their noses at Tolkien, and have nothing positive to say about Twain.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Second, remember that over-doing one thing is generally bad. Herbert can get away with massive amounts of description because Herbert’s description makes your mouth dry out and your eyes water. Chances are that you are not Frank Herbert, so don’t try to be. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write is a way that is comfortable to you. If you like description, be descriptive, but be aware of what is enough, and what is too much. Listen to people who read your work and give feedback instead of arguing with them (this is one of my biggest problems as a writer). However, as Kipling’s poem says ‘If all men count with you, but none too much’. You are not writing to an audience of one editor. I generally try to get multiple people to read what I write, and if one person brings up an issue I log it. If two people bring up the same issue, I listen. If three or more people bring up the same issue, then I know its something that needs to change.

Third, remember that none of the above should be non-existent in your writing. All the action and dialogue don’t matter if I have no idea where anyone is or what they look like. Beautiful descriptions are kind of pointless if no-one ever does anything. There are a few specific pieced that focus entirely on one or the other, but they tend to be both short and rare. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of skill to write even a short story that only includes one of the important components, and even these tend to include some form of the other components, just not a direct form.

Lastly, remember to vary your use of all of these components. If you only use still descriptions, people will get bored. If you only use living descriptions, people will get confused. Similarly, if your characters all talk the same, or if specific actions are always described in the same way, then your readers will get frustrated.

The key to writing well is to write. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and don’t be afraid of writing badly. If you don’t like it, no one else has to read it, and if you show it to a few people and they don’t like it, then you can keep it to yourself. There are very few author’s whose first books are incredible, or even published for that matter. We have to practice, and we all start out writing badly. Instead of being afraid of that, use it.

Sequester

Three years ago was my first attempt at Nanowrimo. For those out of the know, it’s national novel writing month. For the month of November you write furiously to hit a 50,000 word count. You do this online with a bunch of other writers, and everyone is going for that one glorious goal. There are guest speakers to pump you up and articles on how to best utilize the time you have. A few articles exist on how to write, how to keep the ideas flowing, but primarily it’s all about 50,000 words and how to make sure you hit it. Quality doesn’t matter. You should try it. I haven’t won yet, but it’s a lot of fun.

While writing furiously my first year, on November 15th, there was a video that shot me square through the eyes: sequester yourself. Chris, one of the heads of the movement, said the best way to get writing done is to sequester yourself. I was a teacher at the time. I had students hanging all over me. At night I had to grade. Parents would call because it was my first year and they had my number. I lived at home and there were chores to be done or my parents wanted to bond. How in the world would I sequester? As I said, I did not hit the word count that year.

As I’m editing a 388 page monstrosity, I’m not appreciating my progress. The words of Chris haunt me once more: sequester. I’m taking up his call, as each and every one of you should. This week, maybe even all month, find something that distracts you. Now destroy it or hide it away. If they are children, please don’t destroy and remember they need food, but otherwise a large enough closet makes for great slumber parties.

Take whatever it is you know sucks up a lot of your writing time, and avoid it at all costs. If it’s something on the internet, block it. If it’s your phone, remove the battery and give it to your spouse or roommate for an hour. Whatever it takes. To show that I’m taking up my own banner, I have blocked Facebook on every computer I have access to and removed it from my phone. Between chatting with friends and looking at Game of Throne memes, I lose hours to this monstrosity. So away with Facebook for a week, and I’ll see what happens from there.

The purpose of this is to refocus your efforts. I was told that what we focus on, what we do over and over, is what we will become good at. Often times what we distract ourselves with is not something which is improving us. It isn’t something the world craves. Writing expresses your inner thoughts. It makes you more in tune with communication. It allows you to see both details and a big picture. Window shopping on Amazon makes you envious or poor.

Many times, this can be helped by a spouse or friend. Have them keep you accountable. So with this in mind, with your manuscript or ideas in hand and head, block the temptations of this world and get to work. The world wants to see your vision and will no doubt be a better place for it. So get writing, and stop getting distracted!

Writing Using Plot Knots

Today we have another post from the eminent Paul Davis. So, sit back and enjoy his work.

This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!
This piece was done by Julie Raymond. Make sure you check out the rest of her work!

You’ve all heard this before: there are as many ways to write as there are people writing. Very rarely will you find the gem that tells you the exact best way you write. However, the more you read about what works for others, the more you come to understand what does work well for you. I came up with this way of writing when I mixed and matched writing styles with and without structure. I found it focused me enough to move forward while not restraining the story.

A quick lesson, though. When I first started writing I was a control freak. Everything was planned out, the story was cemented with only minor details able to change. For me, this angered my characters, caused the world to eventually become untrue to itself, and left me quitting the writing process halfway through. Then I tried with no structure at all, and there was nothing good which came of that. There are people working well in both camps, but I would bet most of us are an in between.

The way I have preferred to write is what I like to call a knot approach. Your story is a rope capable of moving as it wishes, swaying and kinking in the most unimaginable areas. Let’s be honest, some days our characters hate us, eventually our plot line doesn’t make sense, at times our setting rebels. The rope can flex with these moments, allowing for change. However, one still has to know where the rope is going to have some idea how to get there.

I plan out three knots. The knots are moments I know will happen, points of the rope that are fairly unmoving. Each knot has a plan, a plot point which changes the story, characters, and/or setting. Everything which happens to the rope on the way can move freely, as long as it eventually prepares for that one plot point.

My first knot is the inciting action. There is a background which must lead up to it, which I generally plan out. The background must move events and characters towards that inciting action and prepare them for it. Sometimes preparation means they have a certain flaw, and other times it means they have the magical gem needed to open the portal to bad places.

celtic_knotThe second knot is the game changer. There are always several game changers, but this one must happen or nothing else matters. It’s discovering the weakness in a castle, overcoming a fear of snakes, or learning a great spell which might be able to take down the evil wizard. It should challenge the character and reveal either growth or a lack there of. Everything leading up to it is preparing the character for the knot.

Finally, there is the climax. The final knot is the true test of if the protagonist learned anything, overcame any flaws, and became a better character for it. Everything between the second and third knot leads up to this final struggle. It is setting the stage for a great or tragic moment. The antagonist could suddenly show new vigor. A friend of the protagonist could die. Maybe the super weapon was lost or stolen and it needs to be recovered. Just throw in some spice to really shoot off the climax.

As I said when starting this, every writer has a style. The knots might not work out for you, or maybe they’re the piece of advice you’ve been waiting for all your writing days. I find it gives me enough structure while still allowing unstructured side stories. I’ve also had my knots change drastically. I had one knot where I was able to get all the characters needed together, but then they just decided to do what they wanted. People slated to die survived, while my survivors were shot down. Why? Because when the rope reached the knot, with the position of the characters and the way events had been playing it, it made more sense.

In short, play around with it. Give the knots a chance. Come up with three knots for a story, as short or long as you want, and try out a new method. I find it good practice to find new methods and practice them in my own works to see what I like or don’t like. I hope this helped and happy writing.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, spring is here and March is just about over! I hope all of you are ready for rain! If you know what I mean by that… well… I’d guess that your probably not under 25. Anyway, I hope everyone is having a great year so far, and that the new variety in challenge posts is helpful! So, this week’s scene challenge is one that you’ve done before, but only once… or at least only once here. If you don’t remember the rules, here you go:  I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Finding your own voice is very important in writing, and it’s often one of the hardest things to do. Instead of trying to write like your favorite authors, figure out how you write!