Guilds, Bargains, and General Deviousness

Writer’s block, as we have mentioned before, is a real pain in the…er…plot. Mine’s lasted for about three months. I’ve spent agonizing hours in front of my computer screen, trying desperately to write something, more agonizing hours plotting chapter outlines in the showers, and even more…less agonizing hours doing everything but writing as I pretend that I’m not working on a novel. However, someone has finally dipped the Bucket of Motivation (+5 to Stamina, +3 to Persuasion) into the Well of Lost Plots, and I find myself writing again, quite enthusiastically. Such a happy occurrence, is, of course, not due solely to sheer force of will (iron though mine may be) or a new influx of brilliant ideas (even though I’m sure those are en route). Rather, my new and improved page count is due to a potent combination of three motivational strategies that I thought I would share with you today, in the hopes that something in a similar vein may work for any of my fellow suffers.

I joined a Guild. Well, of sorts. We call ourselves that for motivational purposes and because most of us are writing fantasy stories, so it fits the tone of our works. That, and it just sounds cool. Anyway, there’s a group of six of us in a six-week program. We set individual goals and milestones for the duration of the program, public for everyone in the group to see, and let the coordinator know what kind of feedback we’re looking for. Each person is paired with two reviewers and two reviewees. I post what I’ve written every other week, and my reviewers comment on what I’ve written, using the requested feedback guidelines, after which I do the same for my assigned reviewees. I’ve been a little bit behind on my deadlines, but I’ve kept working at it, and writing is being done.

Why it works: Double accountability. General accountability doesn’t often work for me; just knowing I’m supposed to write a certain number of pages every week so I can show it to someone at the end of the week doesn’t put enough pressure on me to break the writer’s block. The Guild’s system, however, means that I have to comment on and provide feedback for other people’s writing, and that means terrible self-inflicted guilt when I don’t meet my own goals for them to critique. The threat of that guilt and (for me, anyway) embarrassment is enough to make me write, even if I feel like what I’ve written is crap.

More fun than this, I promise.

Bargaining. As most of you know by now, I am an avid Star Trek RP’er. Tom and I both role-play on The USS Intrepid (now recruiting, if anyone’s interested) and the new Play-By-Email site Outpost Eden. Both sites are a great deal of fun, and I spend a lot of time writing for my various characters. Tom has even more dedication to the sites, and he has also been wrestling with writer’s block. So we made a deal: I can’t post on either site until I’ve written 500 words on my novel that day, and he can’t post until he’s written his 500 words. I let him know when I’ve met my goal, and he does the same (or, if I finish first, I pester him until he reaches his goal, because that’s what a good First Officer does).

Why it works: it’s the reward system, with (for me) high-stakes consequences. I’ve been role-playing for almost a decade, and this writing forum is extremely important to me. I love it very much. So knowing that I can’t do anything with it until I accomplish another task makes me focus very, very hard on getting those 500 words written.

Photo credit: Tom

General Deviousness (aka, Netflix). When I write academic papers, I can’t have any distractions. The only song I can bear to listen to is the 24-hour playlist version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Knowing this, I’d never tried creative writing with any background noise, thinking it would just distract me. However, this past weekend, I put on an episode of Suits, pulled up my Word document, and started writing. Lo and behold, I managed to get almost a thousand words written in the space of two episodes of one of my favorite shows. Repeat attempts at this strategy have proven successful (as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this blog post now), and so I’m rather happy to have discovered it.

Why it works: Distraction. Writing brings out two of my biggest neuroses: perfectionism and linear thinking (logical plot progression). My need to make everything perfect the first time and know exactly how each detail fits into the plot often makes my writer’s block the major problem that it is. I overthink. But when I turn on Netflix, my focus is split, and the perfectionist bit of my brain gets distracted. I write almost on autopilot, and my subconscious brain takes over. Writing gets done, and it may need a good bit of revision afterwards, but the important part is that the words are there.

Netflix came to Poland in January, and there was much rejoicing.

In summation: Double-accountability, the reward system, and distraction. On their own, none of these three methods worked for me, but together? They’re magic. I’m writing. My characters are speaking. And the story happens. I encourage you to try combining methods, when you have difficulty writing. Find what combination works for you, even if it’s weird, and let it fuel your writing. What strategies work for you, and why?

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Writing versus Editing: The Eternal Struggle

Which is more important: writing or editing?

Obviously, that’s an unfair question. To a serious writer in any type of writing, the answer should be “both.” The act of writing itself is essential because it gets you into practice and gives you raw material to work with. While your first draft probably won’t be great the very moment you put it down on paper, at least doing so gives you a draft that you can revise and improve later on. That’s where editing comes in. Even if your first draft is crap, editing lets you refine it and hone in on the good parts while weeding out the bad. Editing and revision, especially after you’ve gotten some feedback or taken some time to come at your work with a fresh perspective, are what can turn a decent story into a good one, or a good one into a great one.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

For a good writer, writing and editing should of course go hand in hand. Without the act of first writing something, editing wouldn’t exist at all. And without the act of editing and continual revision over time, writing couldn’t be nearly as good as it is. So it seems impossible to answer the question of which one is more important.

And yet, nonetheless, I’m still trying to answer that question now.

Well, maybe I’m not asking which is more important–just which one I should work on now. Here’s why.

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this blog, then you might know that, with some exceptions, I haven’t worked on writing novels in a long time. Two years of grad school and other responsibilities will do that to you. Yes, I’ve still been writing throughout all this time, and not just for school. But since my free time has been sparse for a while, I’ve focused my attention more on shorter works, such as poetry, blogs, articles, parodies, and maybe one serious short story. While I once dreamed of writing best-selling novels (or even halfway decent ones), I’ve barely worked on any for at least two years–probably closer to three, really.

But now, all that could change. I finished my graduate degree last month and, for the first time in about two decades, have absolutely no intention of continuing my studies in the fall. It’s summer and I have plenty of free time to catch up on reading, Netflix, and perhaps even writing. I have at least a few friends (and/or family members) who are using this summer to work on novels, and I want to join them because at least a part of me misses it.

But there’s a couple of problems. First, I’ve been out of novel-writing for so long that I’ll really have to re-cultivate my motivation for it if I’m going to make any progress at all. Secondly, there are two different large projects that I’ve wanted to work on, and I don’t know which one to start with or to give my attention to first. And that’s where my conflict between writing and editing comes in, because one project is a full novel that needs editing, and the other is an unfinished novel that needs writing.

I’ll give you a quick summary of both:

My full-length novel is a superhero story, tentatively titled Fractured Heroes (although I’m still not fully satisfied with that

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.
This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

name). It follows an ensemble cast of seven main protagonists, all superheroes or crime-fighters of some sort, with various personalities and character flaws. Some are brutal and violent; some are cold and detached; some use the outlet of heroism to seek redemption from a past of guilt and shame. But when they uncover a dangerous super-drug and a plot to destroy their city, this disjointed group of heroes has to band together and rely on something greater than their individual selves. I wrote this story throughout 2010 and 2011 (it was long enough to be two NaNoWriMos, and then some), and it’s gotten good reviews from a few friends and online forum readers. At some point in 2012, I had a trusted friend read through it and make comments or suggestions about how it could be improved. So I have a large document full of my friend’s comments…and I have made very little progress since then in going through those comments or revising my story at all. However, I would love to revisit it and get it good enough to send to a publisher one day.

And the other story I’m working on is a futuristic, dystopian one called The Joining. A couple centuries into the future, society is built almost entirely upon romantic relationships and physical pleasure. On their eighteenth birthday, everyone is expected to choose a partner and be joined with them for life. But one seventeen-year-old boy doesn’t fit into his society’s customs and doesn’t like feeling rushed to commit so soon . What is he to do with his Joining ceremony fast approaching? I started working on this story sometime in 2012. I outlined the entire plot, so I know more or less what I want to write. And in all that time I’ve written a walloping two chapters, about ten pages or so. I’ve got a story in me and I want to get it out, but I just haven’t had the time!

Of course, I want to work on both of these projects eventually, so maybe this dilemma is a bit redundant. If I really planned it and worked at it this summer, then I could certainly do some of both. Still, since I haven’t done that yet, I’m a little torn, and I’m opening it up to input.

Which one do you, my faithful readers and fellow writers, think I should focus on more so? And why? Is it better to get a new story idea out of my head or to hone the one that’s closer to a finished product? Which story sounds more interesting to you? And do you have any wise advice for a long-dormant novelist trying to get back in the game?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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.

Separating Fiction from Academia: Word Choice and Tone

200474875-001It’s November, which means that I am in the midst of approximately 50000 papers and my thesis. My desk is strewn with research, hefty literary tomes, and my MLA handbook. In other words, my brain is in full-blown academic writing mode. I think in complex syntax and $500 dollar words, and analyze everything I see and hear. Everything I write, even a Facebook post, sounds like a term paper in my head. Unfortunately, this also carries over into my creative writing. I try to write dialogue, but every character sounds like they’re writing research papers, submitting articles for publication in The Modern Language Review, or reading Dostoevsky. The tone of every story is also ridiculously pretentious and stuffy…it all sounds like something Ann Radcliffe would have written. My current struggle is figuring out how to switch between modes so that I can work on my creative writing even during my busy research weeks. The only way I’ve discovered so far is completely shutting off the academic side of my brain by watching some ridiculous TV show (Gossip Girl, anyone?), and then I can switch into my creative mode. The only problem is that I often have difficulty getting back into the mood to write my thesis or other major literary type things…it can take hours to return to the right mindset, which is very frustrating. Still, it scratches an itch for now. Any suggestions? Anyone else have this issue?

Take Time to Breathe

Story of my life (pun intended).
Story of my life (pun intended).

Life is hard. I’m discovering that more and more every day. When I was a naive college freshman who’d just switched her major to English (from Pre-Law…what insanity that would have been, had I stayed on that path!), I was excited. I thought that with my major and my new career path, I’d have all the time in the world to write, and that the ideas would just come to me as I studied and took classes. Now, when I’m working in a university and finishing up a graduate program, I realize how laughably wrong I was. If anything, writing has gotten harder. It’s not just the multitude of classes (plus all the work from four jobs) that has upped the difficulty level, although it certainly does take away from the available writing time in my day. The main problem for me now is that even when I do make time to write, the words just don’t come. Even though I’ve studied and taken classes in creative writing, even with going to writer’s groups and seminars, and even though I do my very best to make sure that I have time and space for my creative writing, I can’t write even the flashest piece of flash fiction. When I was younger, even by as little as two years ago, I could just sit down, pull out a pen and paper, and just let the words flow. The pictures painted themselves in my head, the stories wove themselves together, and even though everything I wrote needed major revisions before it became presentable, but the words CAME. I could write, and the worst of my stories or poetry made me happy and relaxed. This issue has been stressing me out for months now, but I finally had an epiphany the other night: I take the time to write, but I don’t take time for me first. My days are so full of stress and so exhausting that it’s like I take a deep breath at the start of the morning and work through the whole day on that one lungful of air, because I’m afraid that stopping to take more breaths will slow me down and I won’t finish my 500 mile-long to-do list. Then, when I finally sit down to write, I’m either working on the fumes of that one great lungful of air, or I exhale, and try to write despite the weariness and lack of oxygen. Neither of those approaches are particularly helpful, and trying to write that way just makes me frustrated and even more exhausted. I have to learn to breathe before I write. I need to refresh and relax just a little before giving myself over to the tyranny of my muse. For me, that means extending my writing time by half an hour: those first thirty minutes are devoted to a destressing activity just for me, whether it be reading a book for fun, listening to classical music, practicing my West Coast Swing moves in my living room, taking a walk at sunset, or writing a letter to my boyfriend. These are the things that make me breath, relax, destress. If your writing is struggling right now, or if you’re dealing with severe writer’s block and the words just aren’t coming, slow down, take a minute to yourself…and remember to breathe.

The Power of Parody

Hello! I’m Sam, and this is my first post for The Art of Writing. I’ve loved writing in many forms (stories, poems, or whatever I’m in the mood for) ever since I was little, and I still try to practice it pretty regularly to this day. When I’m not writing, I’m taking classes toward an M.A. in English, reading a whole lot, and secretly fighting crime in dark alleyways at night (but don’t tell anyone). If you like what you see here and want to read more from me, you can find my personal blog and more info here.

But now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m afraid I have a confession to make.

I’ve got to admit, I haven’t actually been writing much fiction lately.

It’s not because I don’t love writing fiction. I truly do enjoy it when I get to do it. I have several story ideas and novels in my head that I hope to finish writing and/or editing one day. But, for a variety of reasons, it seems that I’ve gravitated away from fiction in recent years to focus more on articles, blog posts, and other forms of shorter creative non-fiction (such as the one you’re reading right now). So when I was asked to contribute to a blog about writing fiction, I didn’t really know at first what I would write about.

“I don’t have much recent experience to draw from,” I said to myself. “I really haven’t been writing much fiction lately except for…except…”

This poster was created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt's monologue from Parks and Recreation.
Poster created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt’s monologue from Parks and Recreation

And then I remembered the one fictional work that I have been working on sporadically: a parody mash-up co-written with two friends, in which we basically decided to see just how many different fandoms and references we could combine and simultaneously poke fun at in the span of one epic tale (or trilogy). It’s a quirky, over-the-top, very tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Super Mario Bros., Batman, Doctor Who, classic literature, and much, much more.

Now, being a blatant rip-off of quite a few other works, this story of course is not what most of us would call “serious” fiction, and it’s hardly “literary” by anyone’s standards. This supposed subpar quality is inherent to works of parody, or at least to people’s common connotations about them. But that’s no reason for either readers or authors to completely write off parodies as insignificant or juvenile. After all, any story, even a parody, still has to be good by a certain standard of judgment; it still has to conform more or less to certain criteria, adhere to common conventions of fiction, and accomplish what it sets out to do as a story.

For someone who hopes to write more serious or original fiction, writing a parody can be a good way to gain some easy practice. Here are a few reasons why:

  •  Tropes and conventions are exaggerated. Parody is a good way to explore and play with common tropes or conventions in fiction, since they’re intentionally exaggerated and ridiculed in parody. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some parodies to include metahumor and directly announce the plot points they’re following or the sort of work they’re poking fun at. If you’re writing a parody, you don’t have to be subtle; you can go over the top and be painfully obvious with plot points and character development. If you’re in the experimental stage of writing fiction, this overt use of story components may help you to more concretely map out the narrative elements that make up a legitimately good story.
  •  Parodies are fun, not serious. As mentioned above, nobody expects parodies to be brilliant, profound works of fiction that will endure in the canon of literature for generations. They’re inherently meant to be lighthearted and fun in tone and by nature do not take themselves as seriously as other works might. These qualities take a lot of pressure off of you as the writer! You don’t have to come up with something original or groundbreaking when you’re writing a parody; you can rearrange existing elements of a story, or combine those elements with your own ideas that may or may not be fully fleshed out yet. Overall, you can let loose and relax just a bit. You can write something just to write, or to get into the habit of writing, without caring overmuch about how good or literary it is. You have the freedom to try different things out and see what works and what doesn’t. You can just play around and have fun!
  • An illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer
    Illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Parodies still carry some weight. Even though parodies are for fun and not “serious,” don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re less important or worthwhile pieces of fiction, or that you can make a good one with just a halfhearted effort. An enjoyable parody isn’t just haphazard elements strewn together; it still has familiar characters and a functioning story with a beginning, middle, and end. It should also have a good amount of humor and wit, cleverly satirizing certain conventions with varying degrees of subtlety. Even classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain relied heavily on satire, on pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in institutions or certain types of literature. Well-made, entertaining parodies must do this to some extent as well. To use another example, I also wrote another parody in recent memory, a Christmastime poem blatantly imitating Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I largely filled it up with jokes, laughs, and cultural references, but I also based it on my own real-life experiences and tried to at least touch on a legitimate moral about the importance of family and fellowship. Even though it was lighthearted and fun, it wasn’t completely meaningless or devoid of serious significance. If you’re truly dedicated to writing fiction and serious about wanting to hone your craft and skills as a writer, then you’ll still put your best thought and effort and personal feeling into it at all times, even if you’re just practicing with a parody.

So, if you have the misfortune to be visited by writer’s block in the near future, or if you’re like me and you haven’t been able to find the opportunities for “serious” fiction lately, then I encourage you to try writing a parody of your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Figure out what sort of plot and character formula makes that story work, and play that up a lot in your parody. But also look for the flaws or ridiculous aspects in the work you’re imitating and be sure to exaggerate those for comedic effect. Consider what messages your use of satire will send, overtly or subtly, about the work or genre you’re imitating, or about life and the world as a whole. Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works for you, and as you continue to write, try to notice how your own storytelling style begins to develop and differ from that of the original author. Use this time and this opportunity to hone your skill and your own unique voice. And in the midst of it all, don’t forget to have some fun!

Writer’s Block 5: Fortune Telling

This is the final card I have to play on defeating writer’s block, and it’s literally a card. Sometimes, when stuck, bored, or creating too much in a short period of time, I’ll turn to tarot, runes, plot dice, or any number of other divining tools to help influence the direction of my story.

I am Christian and I have received a wide array of responses to using this method from I’m practicing witchcraft to I’m not revering the cards as one should. Ultimately, it’s just a method to spike creativity, like an epic movie, good soundtrack, or beautiful woman. I put no higher stock in the tarot deck than I do my plot dice. This is the perspective I have when using runes and tarot cards.

Runes and tarot are very similar methods, though tarot will give a far clearer direction, where runes are broader. Either way, it takes a great deal of interpretation and creativity. While plot dice, and the like, suggest you keep a more open mind, they are far more suited at giving you a direct pathway to take, instead of creating one from a concept or word.

For each character I need or want help with, usually support, I draw three cards or stones. The first is background. This will explain what the character has been through. The second draw is for who they are. It is their current personality and goals. The final draw is for their future. What will be their role in the story as it unfolds and will they find success or ruin. If you only draw from major arcana, you can come up with overall archetypes as well.

When trying to construct a plot, draw as many as you require. Base this on major plot points. Most will have three (beginning, middle, and end), though some will have more. Use each one to just give a loose direction. It’s a great way to get out of your norm and force your mind to break out of your personal cliches.

You will need a book for interpretation, though the internet can be pretty helpful. You can even find kits for free online which will draw the runes or cards for you, without having to buy your own. I like the feel of the real thing. Remember this is a guide. It is not set in stone. For your main characters, I highly suggest you come up with most of their information on your own. However, as a writing challenge, this can be a fun way to flex your creative muscles.

Finally, plot dice (or character, motivation, etc., dice). These are very straight forward, generally very cheap, and give decent direction. The only negative is they only have six sides. While straight forward, and I personally find harder to break into a creative groove, they can still be used to stimulate you in the right direction. As with the cards and stones, you don’t need to use them the way they rolled. If it gets you thinking and moving, go with the motion.

Because sometimes even plot dice require a great deal of interpretation. This is called Story Dice and you can get it on the iPod store.
Because sometimes even plot dice require a great deal of interpretation. This is called Story Dice and you can get it on the iPod store.

For a super challenge, you can do this while driving. Check out road signs, buildings signs, watch people in that creepy way which makes them keep the porch light on at night. Maybe a car triggers it. It is not hard to find the stories surrounding us each and every day. All you need to do is open up your mind to the creative possibilities, and it will naturally cling onto whatever is inspirational. I even do this at work. You might not see it on Monday, but it’s Tuesday. Open your eyes to the events and people surrounding you at your job. What quirks do your coworkers have? How do they react to personal and professional stimulus that is different than you? How can you make them a character? What happens at your work that an average person does not know about, and how can you include it in your novel? Every day is a great day for inspiration.

Good luck in your writing and with your writer’s block! While I have other methods, none of them truly warrant their own post, so this is the last post on the subject. What will I do next time? That’s an excellent question. I seem to be blocked on ideas.

Writer’s Block 4: When the characters get boring, the bored get rough.

My players’ characters stared at the computer console debating what to do. There weren’t too many options. The goal was to gather data and there were two doors to unlock. However, they were with a monk who revered technology as a god of sorts and they didn’t trust him. While staring at the screen, arguing about what could happen, doing nothing to progress the story, I had a change of heart. The monk was supposed to be good. He wanted to help the group and his purpose was benevolent.

My change of heart told me he’s a part of a cult which wanted to bring conflict to the world. “Excuse me,” he butted in, “What if I take a look at the computer? I could open the armory and get the data I require.”

Having no idea what to do, and excited at the opportunity to get into the armory for free (nothing is ever free, friends), they agreed. While sorting through the armory with ridiculously powerful goods, there was an alarm which went off. Two giant robot creatures awoke and started to destroy the earth. If my players weren’t going to act, I would force them to react.

You might not play role playing games. You may never have this problem with players being indecisive. But I will bet you one of the few hairs left on my balding head that your characters in your writing have done this to you at some point. You sit to write, dreading the scene because it just won’t stop. The characters keep talking, keep doing their routine, keep doing nothing worth writing or reading, and you dread sitting at your computer. Every word you type makes you want to retch. “Why,” you cry out to the heavens, “Why have my characters forsaken me!”

The issue is not your characters. There were obstacles placed in front of them, and if they are able to ignore them, that’s on you. I understand not controlling your characters, but you do control the world. You control what happens, who shows up, who doesn’t show up. Your characters are boring? The story is losing traction and you’re fairly sure it will be used as an anesthetic for insomniacs? Shake up that snow globe and see where the flakes land.

Blow something up, show the love interest on another man’s arm, perhaps she’s kissing another woman, a dragon attacks, an assassin comes out of nowhere, someone has a heart attack, and so on. The twists are limited by your imagination, but they are all there if you reach that point where you can’t write because it is so unspeakably boring.

This is exactly what your face should look like when you nuke the capital city in which every scene hence forth was to take place. Now where will the protagonist go for refuge! HA!
This is exactly what your face should look like when you nuke the capital city in which every scene hence forth was to take place. Now where will the protagonist go for refuge! HA!

My story was having issues. It was getting a little drab, everything was predictable, and my protagonist was just going through the motions. The story was getting blurry aside from the broad strokes, and he ended up in a verbal altercation with another character. It wasn’t planned, but it wouldn’t throw the story out of order, either. It just made sense. However, this was not what broke the monotony.

Through dialogue, all the required information was spat out, the characterization was finished, and from that point on they were just going to yell at each other until it was all out and they could get back to work. Boring. Then I realized an old man was getting immensely angry with a young man. What happens when the blood pressure of the elderly spikes, especially at a point where there is a ton of tension outside of that isolated argument? They have heart attacks. It messed up three or four scenes where this man was expected to participate, but I turned something boring into something unexpected. I made my protagonist a man through the responsibility he suddenly inherited. I had to rework the outline, but it was worth it, and significantly better for it.

Throwing in such events won’t just help you get past writer’s block. It also introduces an element of unpredictability. While all actions need to make sense, if you introduce chaos in the moment, no one else will see it coming either. Just make sure it flows naturally.

So cause a natural disaster, introduce an eldritch being, give someone psionic power. Do whatever it takes to transform boring pros into something gripping, as long as it flows and remains with the spirit of the story.

Defeating Writer’s Block 3: Do Not Edit

I’m on this topic as I face a writer’s temptation, and to succumb to these snares sends one to the purgatory of a special kind of writer’s block. I write at a speed of approximately one chapter a night. Sometimes it’s more, often it’s less, but at a point I run into a wall and can’t move forward. At this point I take pleasure in the finer things in life, since I’ve already cleaned the house as an excuse not to write.

When I get closer to finishing, I do not appreciate this open space. I want to write all the time, dedicating every waking minute not at work to my literary pursuits, so there is now the temptation to edit. I want to print it out and start editing and fixing plot holes once I hit that wall of productive writing.

Often times, people don’t get this far without editing. I had someone tell me you’re to write three chapters, then go back and edit them. Write another two chapters and edit all five. This is going to be great in making sure everything is put together in a solid manner. It will also take you a decade to finish a book.

For those who like going back and editing what is there, some of you are very capable. I have a friend who goes back and rereads what she wrote the other day (a very good practice), and does minor grammar fixes and that’s it. She has amazing willpower. Here is my problem, and the problem with many others who go back and edit. You see all of the errors, the clunky dialogue, the plot hole you dug, and you freeze. Your eyes go wide, you start to freak out, and you go into perfectionist mode.

Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer.
Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer. And is that a bottle of wine?! I don’t remember it, I swear, but it does help with the self doubt of editing. Not the grammar, though.

Instead of writing that day, you go back and completely edit everything done. You edit it again and again, pull out your hair, and when baldness has nearly taken root, you throw out the manuscript and swear never to write again. While returning to the beginning once finished will still surely put you in a funk, the book is finished. It just needs refining. Better to finish and refine, than to refine as if to finish.

While this advice may not work for all of you, I am betting the vast majority has hit this block. I will roll the dice that several have reached a point where they thought it would be fun to edit, only to enter a Twilight Zone which disbanded any courage to finish the story. If you have found you are one of those people, heed these warnings. While I highly suggest reading a few paragraphs from the previous writing session, do not sit down with the intent to edit until the final words are kindly placed upon the document. That negative inner editor will hate you, but that part of you who always wanted to finish a novel will hug you until you feel smothered.

Happy writing!