A BRIEF HIATUS (to recharge my batteries)

My fellow readers, bloggers and writers I am taking some time off over the next two weeks (from the 28th of June to the 13th of July) to recharge my batteries so that I can focus on the current work in progress (One Moment in Time) and also edit some poetry. (Can you believe it, I’ve actually been plugging in almost every day for the last nine months!) It’s been amazing but a little rest is just what the doctor ordered.

Anyway, if all goes well, I’ll be back on the 14th with some new posts.

Until then, continue writing and keep believing in your craft!

I’m a Writer. What do you do for a living? (Pause) I study People.

Imagine if Hemingway or Faulkner had had a therapist and he was sitting on his (or her) couch for the first time, and after exchanging pleasantries, they would finally get down to the nitty-gritty, of what had gotten them there; and the above title, would be their parlance over their professions, something that maybe someone else might have easily gotten, but which made the therapist a little more shaken and irresolute. Why? you might wonder, would anything, like the idea of studying people, give the poor therapist a fright. Well, for one thing if their professions were changed, one of them might be out of a job, while the other, would be reeling in cash, by the armload.

Which is not to say that they’d have the market cornered or anything. But maybe therapists can teach us a thing or two about people and their motivations. If you are writing fiction of course, you will have to form a composite of your character(s) in your head. You will have to know what that person is like and the types of things that may or may not have influenced their life. You will also have to work out the types of experiences he may have had and the people who serve as aggressors. After all, conflict is at the heart of any good drama.

So you sit down and try to come up with some sort of sketch for the type of person he might be. How he looks, tall. Short. Lanky. Fat. Muscular. No, less beefy. With jet black hair and squinty eyes. Clean shaven. No, rugged. And the list goes on, as you think of his intellectual status, what he might have done, or places he may have gone. Educated. Not educated. Or maybe up to high school. But still there’s nothing too definite, you make it up as you go, feeling out the character, like an artist warming up at her easel. You take a minute, look out the window, try to form the flesh and bones outline only to get stuck by the heavier more intricate things, like their type of lifestyle. Or worst nightmare.

Which at the moment doesn’t mean much, because you might have only just begun, and don’t really know this character. But sit down. Take a deep breath and try to think of him or her as if they were a living breathing human being and then work it out from there. Or go to a party as your character, act as they would act. See and feel how they might come across to someone else. Remember, you are watching people to see how they interact. To see what makes them unique and flawed and human.

It isn’t just on the surface, really try to listen to them. To see the world through their eyes. For example, a short, smokey brunette sipping a Corona at a bar, trying to avoid making eye contact with a guy who’s definitely interested, because her boyfriend has just walked in. The bald headed man at the center table busy playing with his wedding ring, as he entertains a group of people from work, on the anniversary of his wife’s departure. And the studious teenager wolfing down a grilled cheese sandwich, as she peers outside at the lanky valet, her father and waits to be taken home to the grubby apartment where the lights have been cut.

But what are we observing exactly, if not life. The intricacies of it. How we meet and mingle with one another. How people present themselves. And also how they are, when they are alone. This is the life blood, the essence of the sport of writing. Do you have what it takes?

How Observant Are You As a Writer?

In secondary school I knew a boy who routinely read Sherlock Holmes for fun, along with other tales of mystery and horror. A fan of science fiction and romance myself, I had little dealings with Holmes until much later, when I fell into Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple, and Ruth Rendell. And although now, I do enjoy a good mystery, I often wonder whether my reasoning skills would have been more prolific if I had picked up on the need to be an observer from early on.

ImageThis is something every writer will have to learn as they progress in the field and try to create more believable characters. In fact, this idea clicked more with me, when I was reading an interview given by Audra McDonald, a six time Tony Award winning actress for the Academy of Achievement as a Broadway Stage Sensation. Asked about her role in Porgy and Bess, and more specifically if she had approached anything differently in the character of Bess. She responded that her goal wasn’t to approach anything differently, or do anything differently. Rather she wanted to understand Bess and to do that she went back to the place where the character was first drawn by DuBose Hayward, because that was the only way to get deep inside the character.

As writers, I wonder, how many of us dig deep to discover the gem that is our main character or group of characters. How many of us actually pay attention to what is going on around us, so that when we find parts of them in someone else, we can take it down; like a kid at the foot of a great magician, trying to decipher the code.

I believe a character is built up, slowly over time. It unfolds like a flower, opening to take in sunlight. In the same way, every day you get a glimpse of it. Every day you get an opportunity to see something new. Although the note-taking, of the people around you and their actions, doesn’t have to be too obvious. But capture the small nuggets, the little pieces of information or character traits, that will become any one of your characters. Work it into the story, little by little. Conduct character interviews, like the one described by Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing.

In her interview McDonald says how as creative people often we have to walk in a lot of different shoes. Something that for actors and performers means playing a lot of different roles. Characters, people that they may or may not agree with on many different levels: be it social, political or religious. Likewise, writers have to get to know their characters, so that what they convey to their readers, is as truthful and accurate as they can make it.

Which is not to say that I possess a super-brain that records everything. For example, where I go, what I eat or even wear; but sometimes, I get an inkling of something that suggests: write this down, it’s important. This is one of those reasons why we keep a notepad at the side of the bed. We let the camera in our brain record, or we grab something and write, plot idea. Or possible story lead. And then later when we have some free time, we try to piece them together. Other times though we file and save it for posterity, to use it some time in the future.

Or as McDonald suggests, we do things to replenish the well, because the process of creation can be exhausting. She talks about going to a show to see a great singer like Ray LaMontagne at Carnegie Hall… “I can fill up that way, but I’m still observing as a student as well. My mind’s still at work, and processing, processing and learning and learning and learning…I am very aware of the fact that my mind and my soul, or whatever, are processing all of this, and storing it to then be used at a later date when I get out there.”

This is why being observant is necessary. Why we have to pay attention to things that are happening around us. Or as she say, “be aware of the moment.” The present moment. Not yesterday or the day before that. With all of our electronic gadgets, it is a must that we unplug and unwind when we write, because what we are creating on some level is primal. And urgent. And necessary.

ImageRemember that writing is about revealing truth, and when a writer is honest in their approach to the work it shines through, if you’ve ever read Bastard out of Carolina, The Color Purple or Paradise, you know what I mean. I remember reading the novel, Wrecked (by E.R. Frank) a few years back and finding some similarities between the female lead and her relationship with her father. As a result, I started to see things in my own family circle from a different point of view.  Perspective. Good writing will do that, it will help you to see things more clearly.

Later in the week, I will talk some more about the art of observation, but until then keep your eyes open and your ears pealed for the sights and sounds of life.

Getting Down with the Basics : Writing Utensils

For some time now, I have been obsessed with learning the basics, or at least about getting them right. Like a guitar player who must routinely strum and then make chords so that later they can rely on muscle memory to eventually kick in. Or as my niece says,  play without looking. It’s been six years and without a steady music teacher, I am beginning to see places where my tactics are working, and others where they have fallen short. I realize, however, that if you stick with it and do them often enough, there comes a time when it begins to feel like magic, as though your fingers are actually flying off the guitar as you move between chords: going from G to A to D. Or vice versa.

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 This is a result, like muscle memory, of something that has already become ingrained in you. This is what a writer and anyone learning a new skill aims for. Something called mastery. Effortless proficiency which is an indication that your hours of hard work has indeed paid off. And this is why so many beginner questions may seem like an affront to anyone who has already put in their hours. Or paid their dues, because the struggling writer, grappling at straws, may seem more like someone aiming to know outright, something that has taken them ages to master.

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Worry not, the answers will come.

Even to questions that at first may seem rather pesky. Questions about the very semblance of a writer’s life. Questions about routine, and schedules and writing utensils.  For me the beauty of writing has always been that all you need is a pen and pieces of paper. Yet for the beginner it becomes: Which pen? What type of paper? Or even more probing questions, like where do your ideas come from? A couple of weeks ago, I watched a youtube video where Neil Gaiman joked with an audience member that writers are awful to people who ask such questions and that such questions shouldn’t be asked of writers. In many ways I agree with him, although I am also beginning to understand the need for the question in the first place.

Remember the writer, grappling at straws, is trying to figure out just how this thing is actually done. Needing only a little bit of guidance and maybe luck. Although persistence will be the best advice in the end.

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How to learn the basics and get some handle on writing utensils? you ask. Get a good book on grammar like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Read a lot. And most definitely, write a lot. And concerning writing utensils, they tend to vary. The writer and instructor Natalie Goldberg suggests writing in a funky notebook like the ones you would get for back to school. The ones with tweety bird. I use them sometimes, but I also write on yellow legal pads (like John Grisham) and use inexpensive faber pen. Although any other brand will do. You might need to keep a stapler or binder nearby to collate everything. I like Goldberg’s suggestion because she says as writers we should try not to take ourselves too seriously, especially when what we are trying to do is be creative. So if time permits, take a read of: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. These are two excellent books for writers at stage of their writing career. And also check out Chuck Wendig’s site: terribleminds.com. It always has lots of info for writers.

ImageUntil next week, keep reading, writing and blogging!

 

12 Rules of Writing from 3 Master Craftsmen: What’s the Best Advice You’ve Ever Been Given?

Usually, I come to you with a question and then provide all of the answers. But today the tables have been turned, because I would like to hear from you. My Question: What’s the best writing advice that’s ever been given to you? It can either be something stated directly, or something you’ve picked up while writing and working on a project. You decide.

ImageHere, I’ll provide my own, after letting you in on one of my biggest secrets. For the past two or three years I’ve been a huge fan and follower of various writing websites, some of which have offered as much insight as the books I read and discuss here. This website has continually offered me great beginner advice that I would like to share with you, as well as, recommend that you check out the site; it’s called: brainpickings.org.

Maybe some of you have heard about it, but to the others when you’re through reading this article, do take a trip across the world wide web. For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the type of advice offered to beginners by more professional writers. And like with many other things, I am learning how to accept the things that gel with me and drop the ones that don’t. On the site mentioned above, various writers like Ernest Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood (et al) offer anywhere from 8 to 10 pieces of advice. Or rules as it were, and from this group of four, I have chosen to discuss a few rules from the latter three, because they have been the most helpful thus far.

For me, Zadie Smith is like a level-headed guru, who offers practical advice. Some of which I have learned, others that I go over again and again. Below are three of her rules.

Image3. Don’t romanticise your vocation. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

These are the three pieces of advice that appeal to me most, but if you go over the entire list, others might stand out for you. As a beginner myself, aiming for the Young Adult reader, I have to remind myself that I cannot, as yet, do everything to get my novel to the level that it should be at. But every book created takes or will take me one step further. Closer. It will be the same for you. (As you can tell I am a firm believer in making incremental changes, small inroads into my weaknesses so that eventually they will be overcome. Only time will tell.)Image

Neil Gaiman is the second master craftsman, I look to for assistance. His rules are simple, direct and sometimes comical. Follow them anyway. Rule 1. Write. 2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. 3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. 4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and like the kind of thing that this is. (Gaiman’s link here.)

A lot of good advice, remember: writers write. And if you pay attention to the advice of writers, sometimes some things are often repeated. Pay attention to those, they are really important. Finally, the last writer, Margaret Atwood, seems pretty zany but her craft is superb. So, read on.

Image1. Take a pencil to write on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. 3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do. 4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick. 5.  Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. 6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

If you can hear the slant of humor coming through, then maybe you can also see all the valid points that are swirling around with them. Things like holding the reader’s attention and backing up your work. To check out Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Advice to Beginning Writers, go to brainpickings.org. Trail the site on weekends, when you get a bit of free time and look out for anything interesting.

Now, I leave the floor open for you. In the reply box below, please share any bits of advice that you’ve found helpful. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from each other.

Who or What Are You Reading?

In this age of influence, it is easy to think that whatever we create must be completed, without any outside interference. Or obstacle. That our work, our precious babies – for those of us, who consider them such – must be done without anything else being held in its place. Like someone else’s book, values or ideas. But the thing that sets us apart as human beings and makes us unique, is our ability to influence one another. To inspire greatness and, by extension, to be inspired.

Image     Because in truth, everybody needs a light. A beacon. Or a teacher. Since we all may have started off as children who were told magnificent stories. Stories like A Wrinkle in Time, Carrie or I, Robot. And this need to create came to us as part of something bigger, because those stories had such a tremendous impact that we yearned to move someone else. Desired to tell our own stories.

Image Therefore, I ask you now: Who or what are you reading right now? Because the mark of a great writer (author, poet, screenwriter or playwright) is that they can find the time to read, (hear, listen or watch) the work of someone else. So that they can get a handle on voice, diction and tone, because every writer will have a different way of presenting their material. Showing us something that either we do well or badly. Something that maybe we can learn or even just try to grasp. Because as writers we must be willing to allow ourselves to be open to other writers. The rudiments or methods of the work.

     This is how we learn to get better. By being more observant. By seeing how they get their ideas across, breathe life into their characters and set up the plot. Or give the story its substance. I believe to be a good or even great writer is to be open to all the nuances of craft so that when you create your own story, it will seem new and fresh; even if the idea has been expressed before. You will present your slant or take on things, and show how your story is different from what has gone before.

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Know that in the end, you will find your story. Create, what you were meant to create. All that matters, though, is that you learn how to be a little more observant. How, to pick up on some of the techniques of master writers. Learn from reading what they have written (as past writers did centuries ago). See what they did and try to take it one step further. Remember it won’t happen in a day, but in a couple of weeks, months or even years the techniques will grow on you, if you apply them. A writer is someone writes. Someone who is observant about life and as such must pay attention to the things that are happening in the world around him, which I’ve read is the best way to learn. At other times though, it is the television shows that teaches you things. You notice gestures, mood changes and the interaction of characters, not to mention orchestration and scene dynamic. Enter late. Leave early. Something that might serve stage drama better than fiction. Either way experiment. In creating scenes make sure that whatever is included is important to the character at that time. Something that they should know as opposed to one of the million things that you know and just have to add, for the sake of clarity.

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So, I ask again, who or what are you reading? At the moment, I’m drawn between Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down and Jeffery Deaver’s The Skin Collector. How about you? Until next time, keep reading, writing and blogging!

June Writing Tip 2: Develop a Writing Routine

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Thomas Edison

Maybe most of you have already seen or heard this quote. And yet, the idea of the lonely, toiling writer persists, which is not to say that writing is either hard or easy work, but instead that it takes concerted effort. After all, writing consists of writing and re-writing. Until, what you want to say, comes out right. So why not create a habitual routine? Why not, find a way to get better incrementally? How? some of you might ask. Well, the method is clear. Develop a writing routine and do your best to stick with it.

ImageFor some, the idea may seem stifling, or even restrictive. How do I know? you ask. Well, more specifically, I’ve been there. Done that. Busy staring at a piece of paper, waiting for inspiration. Or the muse to strike. Some days it came. She came. Placing something that seemed like a grand idea inside my head. Something that would get me going hop-pity skip, along a merry trail. Other times, she remained absent. Looking back now, I can recall those ideas that were carried through to completion, while others died on the page, suffering either from a lack of clarity or overkill, where I tried to make the story do what I wanted it to do, rather than listening to what the characters had to say.

The beauty though would be those that would bear new fruit. Those that in going over, would lead me to another more skilled creation. Looking back now, I can see that in my own infancy stage as a writer that one of the most important things that I lacked was a regular writing routine. Truthfully, I would wait for the story. Or come up with some brilliant title and then try to write around it. Not that there is anything wrong with either approach, because sometimes an idea might come in stages and other times it might be the whole. But take time, write it down. Get yourself accustomed to some sort of rhythm when you create. Say you grab a beer or a cup of black coffee and then settle down to write. Say, for an hour or two, between five to seven, after you’ve come home from work. Or if you do this full time, say writing  early in the morning and editing in the afternoon.

iwriter magesEither way, let your schedule be something you create for yourself, rather than something that is imposed on you. Put aside a block of time each day, only for writing. And when that time comes, you do nothing but work. Write. Even if at the end of it you only get down one good line. A paragraph or a page. Work all the time you work. Write all the time you write. And keep it. Even if the words don’t jive with you afterwards. In a week or two, something in it may seem salvageable. Or be exactly what you were aiming for.

And finally, try your best not to think of this block of time as regimented work. Free your mind. Allow yourself to be creative. To write without qualms. Yes, open yourself up to seeing things differently. With fresh eyes. Eventually the right words will come, with or without your help and you will learn that being a more disciplined writer is about allowing yourself the freedom to create.

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So, until next Monday! Keep reading, writing and posting!