10 Things to Learn about Writing from Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss

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from Cléo Charuet´s studio wall and / or Peter Fischli & David Weiss

I found this photo on a great blog on redbubble.com and think it is really has a lot to teach us about writing. Peter and David are fine artists, but I’ve thought a lot about these concepts and how they apply to me and my writing work.

1. By working on only one project at a time, I find I am less distracted and better able to get quality work done. Putting down one word right after the other will get me to the end. Sitting at my desk thinking of all the projects I haven’t done gets me nowhere. We are not as great at multi-tasking as we think.

2. What is the problem your MC is trying to solve? Is your character just telling us their thoughts and feelings or are they doing something to solve a problem? A great fix for writing that doesn’t move your audience in any way. Check out this funny post by Ash Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project about The Secret to Creating the Elusive Emotional Connection in Writing.

3. Instead of listening, try to be a listening for possibility in your life. I try to be a listening for what it is I want to accomplish with my writing as well. By being a listening for something very specific, it will often show up unexpectedly. I also like to make my computer read my works in progress. Even though it sounds like Stephen Hawking is reading my words back to me, I still get a sense of rhythm and timing and whether I’m repeating certain phrases or using confusing language. It also makes me laugh when the computer pronounces things in a completely inappropriate way. The Listening Project is an interesting documentary that asks the question, “What does the world think about America?”

4. A lot of my writing time is spent asking questions. What does my MC want? Why do they want that? What are they going to do to get it? What obstacles are in the way? What tactics are they using to try to get what they want? Also, “Is my coffee mug full?” If it isn’t, time to take a break and refill it.

5. I always wait until polishing for this one. I try to turn off that inner voice that keeps saying, “This is nonsense” over and over, endlessly repeating itself in my head like my four-year-old when he wants a piece of candy that I’ve said he can’t have. Just let everything out in the first draft and then go back and find the sense in the nonsense.

6. Change is inevitable. I’m a plotter. I like a to have my beats worked out before I start. I often find the story changing as I work on it. The characters will say or do something that takes the story in an awesome direction but veers from the original idea. I try to let this play itself out and not worry about it too much. I try to trust that my brain has worked on the problems of the story while I’ve been doing laundry, taking a shower, trying to get the four-year-old down for a nap. I hope I never get too rigid not to embrace change, because every time I have, I’ve had an amazing adventure because of it.

7. Sometimes, I write for several hours and realize that what I’ve spent all that time on won’t make it into the final draft. But I know that these “mistakes” are important to get to the next level of writing that I have to do. I often teach my students that mistakes are an important part of the process. We are all human. We do not know exactly how to do things perfectly every time. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be as fun to do. Make mistakes, admit them, and move on. “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray from Goodreads.com

8. Say it simple. Going back through first drafts I search for where I’m trying too hard. Having an editor or a beta reader can be really useful for this.

9. Breathe. Everyone, at some point, feels exactly as you do now as you are trying to write. Know this and be calm. Keep putting one word after the other. Get to the end. Read this great article on How Succesful People Stay Calm on Forbes.com.

10. If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, neither will your readers. Smile, even in the midst of the difficulties, knowing that you are doing something that other people only dream about doing.There is even some research to suggest that the physical act of smiling, even if you don’t feel happy, can lead to feelings of happiness. Try it!

Close Encounters with Famous Writers – Maya Angelou

I met Maya Angelou once at a dinner theatre in Delaware of all places. She was doing a reading and I was trying to recruit her for a small film project I was working on. She graciously took a moment to talk to me about the project but let me know in no uncertain terms that she was way too busy to get involved. I didn’t care, though. It was nice to have met her in person and to have made a small connection with a brilliant and beautiful mind. She was a “phenomenal woman.” Her light has gone out, but her words shine on.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

Vassar College’s student bookstore is moving their premises and they are liquidating all of their hardcover books.

This is great news for me because I got to pick up Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper for $1!

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Get your copy on Amazon.com click the photo

Here’s the NY Times review: “Josh Bazell is an unusually talented writer….[he] more than earned my indulgence as a reader. If there’s a better recommendation for a story than that, I don’t know what is.”

I agree. I always know I’m going to have a great time when I pick up a book in a bookstore and before I know it, I’ve raced through Chapter One.

It’s a fun read and there are sharks and mobsters and medicine and doctors and plot twists and turns and a lot of violence, but a really funny voice in the first person narration of Pietro “Bearclaw” Brwna, the narrator.

If you find it, pick it up, (or click on the image and order from Amazon) it’s a great summer read.

Leonardo DiCaprio was slated to play Bearclaw if they make into a movie. (That was five or more years ago) I didn’t know that before I read the book, but I could definitely see the film as I was reading it. 

Drop me a line if you pick it up and let me know what you think!

Unboxing Fiction Unboxed

I’m supporting the guys at Self Publishing Podcast in their Fiction Unboxed project (under a pseudonym) on Kickstarter. For a small donation you get to watch them write a novel, live, in 30 days. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and bring up some interesting issues.

I’m going to comment on the process of following Fiction Unboxed and how I use what I learn to complete my #WIP.

6 Reasons Your Novel Opening Doesn’t Work

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Flickr photo by Myk Martinez

We all know how it happens. You decide to stop by a bookstore on the way home and you tell yourself, “I’m not going to buy anything.”

I also find myself browsing through Amazon.com and thinking, “I’ll just read a few samples, but NO buying tonight.”

My “to read” list keeps getting longer and longer.

But then…

You open that first few pages and the author’s words GRAB your attention. You want to know from the beginning what is going TO HAPPEN NEXT.

There is a trigger followed by a heap which leads to the next action that causes the next trigger and on and on and before you know it you’ve purchased the book and have finished it instead of correcting all the papers that you were supposed to be correcting.

Triggers and heaps come from the language of thrillers. Someone pulls the trigger of a gun, and someone else falls into a heap. With a story, your main character does something (pulls a trigger) that causes something else to happen (a heap). The story progresses through these triggers and heaps until the last one is cleaned up. If the first trigger doesn’t grab our attention, though, we stop reading and move on to the next story.

I was reading a post by Julia A. Weber over at her blog Pub Hub on Blogger.com and she talks about ways to NOT BEGIN your novel. These are her personal pet peeves and I want to talk about why they might be making her a bit peevish.

Some of things she mentioned are:

  1. Your character wakes up, which is followed quickly by your character having a dream and then waking up.
  2. Looking in a mirror and describing yourself.
  3. Any kind of lengthy description.
  4. Backstory logorrhea.
  5. Just being confusing.
  6. Nothing happening at all.

Most of Julia’s pet peeves come from the character not being in any kind of ACTION or dealing with any kind of CONFLICT. Most of us want to read about how a main character overcomes some difficult situation.

When a character simply wakes up there is nothing really happening except a “coming to consciousness.” Try having the character being in some kind of action from the beginning. We might sometimes read to help us sleep, but reading about characters sleeping and waking up will certainly put us to sleep faster. Your character could be driving, mowing the lawn, having sex, farming, shopping, jumping rope, so many great activities to choose from, why choose “waking up”?

The “waking from a dream” trope has been so overdone that I could read a hundred books and hope to never read it again. I want to see the protagonist DOING not BEING. I’d rather see a character picking their nose (but just slightly more) than read about them “waking suddenly from the dream and finding that they are in their own bed” ugh.

Although it is good to see what your main character looks like, we don’t need to see them seeing themselves as the opening of your book. How are going to CAPTURE my attention? Probably not with a lengthy description of your character’s “full lips and straight nose, slightly upturned” that seems to be a staple of bad romance novels. If your character is gardening perhaps they could brush a strand of hair out of their face noticing the graying tips or if your character is driving and keeps checking the rear view to see if the bad guys are still in pursuit, the character could notice that their eyes look dull and glassy from too much coffee and cigarettes and not enough lounging by the pool.

In fact, any kind of lengthy description should be done in your notes and not necessarily make it into that final draft. When we are world building we might want to be verbose about locations and appearances, but when we start our novels, let’s get to the good stuff, those triggers that are going to get our characters in trouble.

Some thing with backstory. If we talk too much (logorrhea) about what happened in the past right at the top of the novel, we haven’t given our readers a chance to get to know who the characters are through their actions and we don’t really care that much about their backstory. What is the essential information I need to know as a reader? Then start throwing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at your character and watch them dodge and weave.

I keep trying to convince myself and others that the best way to get a first draft done is by making a big mess. I am sticking by that. I am failing at it miserably right now, but I am sticking by it. The problem sometimes comes when we don’t go back and clean it up. If we lose track of what is going on right from the top of the story, we tend to stop reading completely. If you have a bunch of dialogue and we don’t know who is talking or why they are saying what they are saying, we’ll get confused and just stop.

The last point Julia makes is that it just doesn’t make sense to not have anything happening at all in that first chapter. I know I want to read books about people engaged in life fully in a way that is unique and interesting enough for me to want to spend my time with them.

Like Julia, I think the best way we can learn to do this is by looking at the books we admire and seeing how other authors have accomplished this. What are your favorite opening lines or chapters? Send me a few.