Sylvia Plath – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Ah, Sylvia, the brute, brute heart of a brute like you.

The self-doubt you spoke of creeps in and sits inside my bones.

Help me to have the “outgoing guts” to write about everything in life and to have the imagination to improvise.

I want to split my life open like a ripe juicy watermelon and watch the pink juice and black seeds run together.

I want to sit in the cornucopia of life’s left ear, out of the wind, counting the stars of all colors, not just the plum and the red.

Help me today, and on all dark days, to unclench the owl’s talons from my heart

so that even among the fiercest flames

I can write about – everything.

 

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Aristotle’s 4 Levels to Creating Characters that Live

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Considered the Google of his day, Aristotle knew everything there was to know about everything there was to know in ancient Greece.

This polymath was born in 384 BCE and would have made a lot of money blogging if blogging had existed. Aristotle has written about aesthetics, biology, ethics, linguistics, logic, metaphysics, music, physics, poetry, politics, rhetoric, theatre, zoölogy, and a system of Western philosophy.

In his classic work, Poetics, he describes Character as one of the essential elements of drama, the others being: Plot, Thought, Melody, Diction, and Spectacle.

Character is essential for any story and all stories are told through the speech and behavior of the characters in those stories. To help you create characters that live you might want to look at the four levels of characterization according to Aristotle.

The first level is the Physical Characterization.

This is the basic facts about what the person looks like.

Are they tall, short, skinny, fat?

Male, female, transgender?

What race is the character?

How does the character dress, move, speak?

The first level characteristics are everything you can tell about a character by looking at them. Because this is the easiest level of characterization, we tend to spend a lot of time on this level and sometimes the other levels can be overlooked.

The second level is Social.

This level refers to the character’s economic status, profession, trade, religion, family relationships, anything that can put the character in context of their social situation.

A wealthy character is going to say and do and react to things differently than a poor beggar in the street that hasn’t eaten for several days.

If you are a carpenter you have different jargon from a professor or a telephone technician. If you follow a certain religion, you may do or say things differently based on your beliefs. If you love your siblings, you will have different things to say about them than if you hate them or even feel indifferent toward them.

Go through your dialogue. If everyone sounds the same, think about how they differ socially. That small change can make a big difference in how they speak.

The third level is Psychological.

This is the character’s habitual responses, attitudes, desires, motivation, likes and dislikes and inner workings of the mind.

Giving your character specific details about their psychology can help us understand what makes them tick.

Maybe they always scratch the right side of their face when they tell a lie. Perhaps they keep their left hand in their pocket all the time because they used to get slapped a lot as a child.

Something that a character dislikes can bring more tension into a scene. (Think Indiana Jones and the snakes.)

Knowing what your character WANTS, what the character’s motivation is for doing the things he or she does is important for driving scenes forward.

The fourth level is Moral.

This level refers to what the character is willing to do to get what he or she wants. How far will this person go? Murder? Stealing? Lying? Cheating?

What are you character’s values and beliefs? Do they match yours or are they far from what believe?

When they are pressed to take action, do they stick by those beliefs and values or do they abandon them in a flash?

Another way to think about his is: What is this character’s true nature?

We all show one face to the world but who are we in private when no one is watching? Thinking about this for you character can really give that person depth and make them come to life on the page.

Physical, Social, Psychological, Moral

If your characters seem one-dimensional, check each of these four levels of character and see if you can add more specific details to each level. Your story people will go from just being people with “green eyes and fierce smiles” to people with  “green eyes and fierce smiles” who move and relate and think and act like living, breathing human beings.

 

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951)

I found this faded Bantam Books paperback edition from 1971 for $.50. It was on a discount books cart outside the wonderfully indie Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz, NY (I’m a frequent buyer) and the pulp illustration on the cover grabbed my attention. I’m also a fan of Southern Gothic and knew that Ms. McCullers would be spinning quite a story inside the yellowing pages.

I sat down to read the novella at my small dining room table and finished about three hours later, haunted and changed for the better for having read it. I found myself breathing heavily and moving my arms and body along with the characters as I read the descriptions of action in the story. At the end of the story I closed the book and said, “Wow. That was a story.”

I found myself thinking about Miss Amelia, Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon all day today. The loneliness and sorrow that permeate this story will follow you around like a stray dog on a back-country road begging for a scrap of meat just before it falls over dead from starvation. It’s that devastating.

You can get a copy of the film at this affiliate link (thank you!) at Amazon.com.

How to Be More Productive Now

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I am definitely not a speed writer by any means.

It sometimes takes me hours to get through a first draft, slogging away at the keyboard, sweat dripping on the keys, checking and re-checking my grammar and spelling, trying to get the best turn of phrase, just the right jibe.

In order to get more writing done, I know I have to just write fast and write not-so-great first drafts, but my doubting brain keeps telling me to correct as I write and I trip and stumble my way to a first draft, only to have to do about the same amount of rewriting anyway.

So what would it take to become more productive? We could all use a few more hours in the day to get things done, right?

I know I could.

So I scoured the interwebs for some great advice and here is what I found.

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1. How to Wake Up Earlier

I’m a night owl, always have been. I love to push it past 2 am to almost 3, sometimes 3:30, before I let my giant head crash on the pillow for some fitful sleep. I know I need to get more sleep and get up earlier, but how?

One way might be to plan something exciting for breakfast. Perhaps there’s a special food you’ve been looking forward to having. I like Nutella on just about anything, but since I’m doing the slow-carb diet, my breakfast these days is eggs and spinach and beans every morning except Saturdays. Not too exciting.

Maybe you could plan something exciting that you can do alone (or with a special someone) that will help you wake up before everyone else. Perhaps reading a favorite book, watching an inspiring video, or taking a brisk solitary walk around the block gets you motivated.

I do know that research shows absolute darkness in the bedroom is important for our brains and bodies to recover fully. Ditto for drinking water before hitting the hay. If you rely on an alarm perhaps putting it across the room or buying an alarm clock that rolls of the table and makes you chase it might be the key.

The ultimate reason to get up, though, is that you are excited to get to work on sharing your story with the world. Remember, you are contributing to the good in the world by adding your story to it. That might just be the motivation you need.

“I’m getting up early to make the world a better place!”

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2. How to Think More Quickly

I come from the world of film, theatre and television and have done my share of improvisation. One of the first rules of improv is to never say, “no.” It’s better to say, “Yes, and…” Making a habit of saying, “yes, and…” will lead you on many interesting adventures. I know it’s done that for me.

By going with your gut and working with your first thoughts, you will most likely find the essence of your idea. If you over-think, you’ll give yourself room to let self-doubt and negative chatter creep in.

You know how you can have “knee jerk” reaction to something? What if you had a “mind jerk” reaction instead? By practicing coming up with many ideas all the time, you’ll be priming the mind jerk to spring into action when you need it.

James Altucher (I’m telling you, subscribe to his blog!) recommends that you carry around a waiter’s order pad and write down as many ideas as you can in order to constantly flex your idea muscle. He also finds it comes in handy in warding off intruders who are trying to keep you from coming up with any good ideas in coffee shops. Just ask, “Can I take your order?” Who knows, maybe you’ll make some tips

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3. How to Work Faster

Listening to music really helps. I’m listening to JaBig’s YouTube channel with the video (just a static shot of Beethoven’s face) called  6 Hour of The Best Beethoven – Classical Music Piano Studyin… [sic] (maybe put an ‘s’ on the end of Hour for me, JaBig?)

I have to admit that having this playing in the background has helped me write this post faster than I could without it. There is something about fingers flying across a piano keyboard that keeps my fingers moving across my computer keyboard as well.

Turning on more lights is supposed to increase production as well.

I remember working as a proofreader for a big credit card company in, yes, Wilmington, Delaware, (where all the credit card companies have their offices, look at your statement) and we were in the same part of the building as the graphic artists. They kept the lights really dim and there were very few windows.

I think they thought it was good for reducing eye strain with all the big computer screens, but to me, it was good for having me fall asleep. The copy was 6 pt. font already and in the dim light with the clickety-clack of keyboards all around me, I was often Captain Nod of Sleepyland in about half an hour of working. I think I must have consumed a pot of coffee a day at that job. According to Philips.com, if they had just increased the light from 300 lux to about 2000 lux, our productivity would have gone up about 8% and our tasks performance by 16%. 10000 lux is what we consider full daylight, not direct sun and you can buy therapy lamps that are in this range.

I’m the worst offender of this next one, but I have to admit that clearing my desk and keeping it neat does help me to be more productive. First, I’m not stressed about finding things and second, I don’t get the urge to stop what I’m doing and clean up the desk and forget about my writing. By keeping the work surface clear, my mind seems to stay clear as well.

One last thing I’ll share is – use a timer. When I don’t feel like working at all, I pull up a timer app, or grab a kitchen timer or punch numbers on the microwave and give myself 15 minutes to get a first draft done. I tell myself if I don’t get anything done in 15 minutes, I’ll give up and go on to the next thing. I almost always get into it within 15 minutes and when I look up at the clock again, 40-50 minutes have passed and I’ve gotten close to a 1000 words done.

Those are just a few of the things I use when I want to be more productive. I’d love to hear what you do!

Drop me a line below.

 

 

Anne Lamott – Writing Quote Wednesday

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“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.

They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.

We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea.

You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

                                                                                                                                           – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

 

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Today is the day traditionally associated with the birth and death of the person (or persons) known as William Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare was an actor/manager as well as a playwright. He owned shares in the theatre and made really good money for his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, eventually being sponsored by King James and becoming the King’s Men.

Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, had three different incarnations. The first burned down during Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII when a cannon  some embers caught the thatched roof on fire. The Puritans pulled down the second Globe when they declared theatre too sinful to continue. The third Globe now stands in Bankside, Southwark  near the original site of Globe one and two.

Sam Wanamaker, an American, built this monument to the great playwright and his plays. You can still see plays there during the warmer months. It is the only building since the Great Fire in London allowed to have a thatched roof.

Ben Johnson said the Shakespeare was the “soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage” and “…not of an age, but for all time.”

Shakespeare is also called the Bard of Avon and in the Victorian era, people so worshiped Shakespeare’s writing that George Bernard Shaw called it “bardolatry.”

Shakespeare was the third of eight children (only five survived into adulthood) and his younger brother, Edmund, was an actor as well.

His father, John, was a glover and leather worker and a “brogger” meaning he did a bit of illegal dealing in…wool…on the side. At one point John was also the town’s ale taster. How do you sign up for that job?

He worked his way up through political positions eventually becoming an alderman, but he also got into trouble for lending money with interest and withdrew from public life.

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a wealthy family and inherited her father’s farm. You can still visit the farm in Stratford today. Shakespeare references the family name in his play, “As You Like It.” The play takes place in an idyllic place called the forest of Arden. There are also scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s works with really great footnotes called The Arden Shakespeare.

There are not a lot of records of Shakespeare’s life which has caused speculation that he could be more than one person. Some people think he was the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Derby or even Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, thought to be a spy and a “rake-hell” and killed by a dagger through the eye during a drunken brawl.

Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (no, not the one from The Princess Diaries) was eight years older than he was. They had three children, Susannah and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. In his will, Shakespeare left Anne his second best bed. While many take this as an insult, because Anne was already established and the daughters would have needed more from the estate, he most likely left most of his furnishings and estate to his daughters. Hamnet died when he was 11 and some say he was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s most quoted character, Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford has a curse on it so that no one digs up the grave. It says, “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebear//To dig the dust enclosed here//Blest be the man who spares these stones//And curst be he that moves my bones.” A bit tawdry and simple, another reason people cite when they make the claim that perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare.

Shakespeare wrote in early modern English and gave us over 2000 of our common words and phrases. Some examples of words first used by Shakespeare are: eyeball, puking, skim milk, obscene, hot blooded and…alligator! If you’ve ever used the phrases, “seen better days,” “it’s Greek to me,” “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” “you can’t have too much of a good thing,” “forever and a day,” “pure as the driven snow,” or even “high time,” you are quoting Shakespeare. Check out these two great videos for more phrases. (Horrible Histories, Kenneth Branagh)

Harold Bloom has said that no other writer has created utterly different yet self-consistent voices for more than 100 major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. He says that Shakespeare’s characters are not alive and yet they have altered all of our lives and may have even taught us how to be more human. Finally, Bloom, in his influential work, “Shakespeare The Invention of the Human” says that the “ultimate use of Shakespeare is to let him to teach us to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing…”

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

 

 

One Simple Technique to Change Your Writing (and your Life) Instantly

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I’m a big fan of James Altucher. He blogs, he podcasts, he writes books, he kvetches, he kvells, but he is AUTHENTIC and inspirational He speaks his truth to power and his truth is engaging and has made a big difference in my life.

I recently started using a technique James taught in his post, “I Used My Magic Power and Exploited Everyone in My Path” and it’s made a huge difference in my day-to-day to life. I want to share my story with you. Although James says he exploited everyone, he really gave them a gift. The gift of himself.

If you haven’t read James’ post yet, pop over to his site, read the post, follow him and then come back over here for my version. You’ll be glad you did.

He does this thing that he calls his “magic power” where he smiles at everyone he sees AS IF he is their mother or that they are about to die. At first, it sounds really creepy. But I’m a big fan of the AS IF as a fiction writer so I thought I’d give it a try in the trenches of higher education where most students are so wrapped up in their cellphones and their relationship woes and their grades that  I have to jump up and down in front of them in class to get their attention.

A few days ago, I started using James’ technique and thought, “These students are going to think I’m creepy. They’re going to run away and report to the Dean’s office that some pervert is on campus smiling at them like he’s their mother.”

Well, that never happened.

What did happen was amazing. The first few people I met changed instantly. Their faces went from concern and worry and looking lost to being open and smiling and glad to see that someone cared about them, even if it was just for a split second. Some of them knew my name and I wasn’t even sure I had ever had them as students. Some of them jumped like an electric current passed through them. Some were unreachable and that was alright, because I know there have been plenty of dark times in my life when I’ve been unreachable as well.

I started using this technique off campus with everyone I’ve come in contact with, strangers, friends, students, elderly folks, little kids, it works on everyone.

Each person I’ve used this technique on, unless they were completely wrapped up in their own darkness, transformed into someone whose face lit up for a brief second as I sent them my full body smile. Like, James, I’ve started to feel stronger, like the rays of the sun giving power to Superman.

My favorite time to do this is when I see someone I normally don’t want to engage with, someone a little off, someone who seems a little too crazy or emotional or withdrawn, but almost every time I’ve done this, even with those people, the difference has been remarkable. It’s almost like those people are the ones who need it the most.

But really, I’m the one who needs it the most.

I’m a natural introvert and would prefer to stay all alone in my dark little world most of the time.

But opening up in this way, smiling at people as if I’m their mother and they are the most important person in the world to me at the moment, has been an engaging and uplifting experience and one I recommend.

We’ve recently had two gun incidents on or near campus just in the past week. One of them was fatal. Maybe if people practiced this technique with each other, they’d spend more time caring about making someone feel loved and less time worrying about why they’ve been “disrespected” and now have to shoot them with a gun.

Thank you, James, for sharing your experience with all of us and allowing me to share it with others as well. I think it can make a huge difference in the world and I appreciate that.

Let me know if you start using this technique and what affect it has had on your life and those around you. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories, because stories are the wildest things.

Coffitivity App – Enough Noise to Work

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Some of my favorite writing days have been when I was living in Chicago back in my twenties and had a long day all to myself at a local indie coffee shop.

The sound of the steamer frothing milk, the sharp bang of the coffee funnel on the counter, the grinder turning beans into the quickest way possible to get caffeine into my system and the low hum of conversations all contributed to creating just enough noise to get some great work done on whatever project I was working on at the time.

Now that I’m a Daddy Writer I don’t have as many of those leisurely days alone to ponder in random coffee shops.

That’s why this really cool app at Coffitivity.com was so exciting to find.

With a free download, you can have a coffee shop ambiance (either “Morning Murmur” or “Lunchtime Lounge”) anywhere you need it and you don’t have to pay $4 for a latte!

I really like the user interface and the sounds are calming. Check out the scientific research they cite to back up their theory that low-level noise actually enhances creativity.

Let me know if you try out the app and if it helps you with your writing. It’s available for both the iPhone and Android platforms. They also have a few other productivity apps as well.

Letting Go to Get Ahead

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What beliefs do you hold about how you think your life SHOULD be going?

Those “shoulds” are often what keep us from taking action.

“I should’ve gotten up at 4 am to write.”

“I should’ve written 3000 words today.”

“I should be more prolific”

“I should be a better writer.”

“I should be higher up on Amazon rankings.”

“This should be easier.”

When we step in a pile of should, we can get overwhelmed and give up taking any action at all. Why keep working when we’re not living the life we had planned?

But what if we were able to give up the life we planned with SHOULDS so we could get to the life that is waiting for us NOW?

I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which is based on Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth. They have both helped me greatly in my writing, especially when working on the middle grades paranormal adventure series I’m in the throes of. (I “should” be farther along with my pages than I am, but I am further into the story than I thought I would be.)

I’m also a big fan of letting go of the past to get ahead and this quote reminded me of that today.

As a writer who also has several other jobs to pay the bills, I have to remind myself of this quote all the time.

You see, the life I often have planned is the one where I wake up at 4 am to start writing and get 10,000 words done that day and feel amazing and like the super writer I know I secretly am. I can picture myself at the keyboard, coffee steaming on my desk, listening to the early morning buzz and hum of appliances and no other sounds but my fingers clicking across the keys.

But more often than not, life gets in the way. I’m already up until four catching up on work I didn’t get done during the day. My four-year old will wake up before me no matter how early I decide to set my alarm and he’ll demand my attention for the rest of the morning. My wife decides to get us involved in a project with our production company that she desperately needs my help with. I get a cold because my four-year old sneezed directly into my mouth. (Ew!) My teaching responsibilities become overwhelming and I have to use that time I wanted to use for writing to catch up on grades or re-do a lesson plan or correct papers.

The life I planned doesn’t happen. The temptation is to say, “Well, that didn’t work out. It will never work out. I might as well give up.” I have many times.

But when I see this quote and think about the idea of the writer’s journey, it reminds me that I have to let go of those plans sometimes to live the life I am currently living. By doing this, I accept the life I have, state my gratefulness for that life, and find the time to write when I can, no matter how little or how much that is. By making even a small amount of progress on my book, I am still making progress toward the life that is waiting for me. The quicker I get at letting go of the SHOULDS the quicker I get back to the LIFE that is waiting for me.

When I hold on to the life I had planned, I feel regret and sadness and beat myself up when I look in the mirror.

“You’ll never finish this book. You should take up bowling.”

“You’ve failed in the past, you’ll probably fail again. You should work at a bowling alley.”

“Why do you kid yourself? You should give up. Bowling seems like fun.”

“You look terrible and should feel terrible and should never write another word again. It should be easier. Why don’t you listen to me and take up bowling?”

Mr. Should, my inner critic, is so mean to me all the time and his recommendations don’t make any sense. I’m a terrible bowler.

The only way to shut him up is to take action.

No, not by bowling.

What I do is walk over to the laptop, open up Scrivener, and keep writing. Word by word, bird by bird, I get the project done. Some days I do get to wake up early and get those thousands of words in and some days it is a struggle to finish a sentence or two. On those days I surrender and let go as quickly as I can. But with each actual written word, I get closer to the life that is waiting for me at the end of the story, whatever that may be. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to do it all over again as I rewrite and again as I start the next book.

Creation of something from nothing is not an easy thing to do no matter what Mr. Should says.

Be kind to yourself. Let go of the life you planned and start living the life that is waiting for you.

Write Now! The Time We Have Left (in Jelly Beans) from @BuzzFeed

What will you do with the jelly beans you have left?

I want to spend mine on grand adventures of the mind and body and spirit, laughing as much as possible, hugging my four-year old and being with my family, learning new things and writing down stories for others to spend their jelly beans on.

Let me know what you’ll be doing with your jellybeans in the comments below.

Have an inspiring Tuesday!

PJ