Showing posts with label Ruthless Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ruthless Writing. Show all posts

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Growth: The Odyssey Debriefing (and a State of the Blog Address)

I'm now over a week removed from my time at Odyssey Writing Workshop, where I holed myself up with fourteen other writers on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. For six weeks, we toiled under the tutelage of Jeanne Cavelos, who crammed an ungodly amount of knowledge into our heads in that relatively short period of time. We also got to learn from (and hangout with) an awesome group of guest lecturers: Jack Ketchum, Patricia Bray, Adam-Troy Castro, Holly Black, Sheila Williams, and our writer-in-residence, Nancy Holder. Those six weeks felt like a lifetime, yet were woefully fleeting. Now I'm home, trying to parse all that knowledge and readjust to real life.

So How Was It?

After I received my acceptance letter, I did a lot of googling and blog-crawling, looking for stories from alumni about their workshop experience. Reading the various blogs and articles that turned up, I noticed the term "life-changing" thrown around quite a bit as a descriptor of the Odyssey experience. While it was nice to see such positive remarks from graduates past, for the most part I chocked that sort of thing up to typical internet hyperbole. However, now that my own year is in the books, I'm pleased to report that this was not an exaggeration. Odyssey was an amazing, transformative experience for me. I can say with confidence that I grew both as a writer and as a person. As my time in Manchester came to a close, I was both sad to see it end and excited to put everything I'd learned to use.

Speaking of which, it terrifies me to think that in some alternate universe I might never have gone to Odyssey. When I wrote down my list of goals for 2013, "get accepted to a major writing workshop" was one of them, but it was almost an afterthought. It was one of those "it would be nice" goals that I took half-seriously. Now that I've actually done it, I can't believe I was prepared to struggle onward as my pre-Odyssey writer self. I look back at that guy and pity him. I feel like he didn't know anything.

I mean, obviously I knew a thing or two before Odyssey, but so much of my writing was instinctual and subconscious, like I was feeling my way around a dark cave, one careful inch at a time. Jeanne Cavelos aimed a spotlight into the recesses of my muse-brain and taught me the important WHATs and WHYs that I didn't have a firm grasp of before--and clarified things that I thought I already had a handle on, but clearly didn't. Before Odyssey, I thought I knew what "show don't tell" really meant, or what three-act structure really was. But I didn't have half as much nailed down as I thought I did, and Jeanne showed me where and why. She illuminated my strengths and weaknesses, diagnosing specific opportunities for improvement and highlighting elements of my own writing that even I didn't realize were there before she pointed them out. After my first meeting with her, I felt almost like I'd been psychoanalyzed. In other words, Jeanne is a phenomenal instructor.

And perhaps the most valuable resource Odyssey brought was the group of people who went on the journey with me. It was amazing to meet fourteen other people who shared many of my own quirks and interests, and who were struggling toward the same goals. By the end of that six weeks, we knew each other well enough that we could have turned in manuscripts without our names on them and had no problem identifying whose was whose. Not to mention, everyone there was awesome. It was a drama-free workshop from open to close. Hell, it was like a built-in support group. I made lifelong friends at Odyssey.

The State of the Blog Address

In addition to her awesome lectures and critiques, Jeanne also helped me evaluate my routine, the work I'm doing, and my goals for the future. Which brings me to the State of the Blog.

One of the things I really appreciated about my time at Odyssey was the disruption of my routine. It felt like I was in a bubble, detached from the outside world, and it was enlightening to find out how much more I can accomplish when I unplug from the various distractions I've surrounded myself with. Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that this blog is often one of those distractions. While I've enjoyed blogging, and especially enjoyed meeting all of you lovely folks out here in the blogosphere, at the end of the day it's my fiction that I need to be spending my time on. That feeling had been building in my mind for a while leading up to Odyssey, and my time away only enforced it. In my final one-on-one meeting with Jeanne, I asked her opinion on this, and she agreed that I should focus on writing and submitting fiction, not blogging. So that's what I'm going to do.

What does this mean for the blog? Well, it's not going away or anything. But I'm going to be transitioning this site into a more traditional author platform. I'm still going to blog from time to time, but I won't be sticking to a regular weekly schedule anymore, and most of my posts will be related to my fiction in some way--announcements of story sales, publications, when I'll be attending conferences, etc. I'll probably drop the occasional musing here and there as well, but I will unfortunately not be continuing my regular series. My Speculative Fiction Tropes, Speculative Spotlight, and Forging a Universe series--while not cancelled outright (since I may still post an entry for fun from time to time)--are no longer going to be regular monthly features here. I'm also going to have to pull out of the Insecure Writers Support Group, as I'm not sure I'll be able to devote the proper amount of time posting and visiting other blogs every month.

I know this may cost me some of my readership. And that's okay. I've really enjoyed meeting all of you people, and I hope to keep touching base with everyone out here in the interweb. But if you want to bail due to this change, I understand. If you'd like to keep in touch, consider hanging around. Better yet, add me on twitter or facebook (if you haven't already). I'll still be pretty active on social networks.

I want to thank all of the guest bloggers who kept things going for me while I was away. And most of all, I want to thank all of you awesome people for reading. I hope you'll stay with me on this new leg of the journey going forward. Wish me luck! I'll need it.

photo credit: MightyBoyBrian via cc

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ruthless Writing: Exploit Your Fears

Last year, I began a pseudo-series here on the blog called "Ruthless Writing," with entries on torturing your characters and murdering your darlings. I use the word "pseudo" because the entries in this series are largely spontaneous and unplanned, but a great deal of topics fit under the umbrella of writing ruthlessly. And as I've said in those past entries, I think the term perfectly describes the mindset I aim for every time I sit down to write. The path to success is paved with ruthless habits.

That doesn't just mean leaving creator's bias at the door when attacking your manuscript, though. That same ruthlessness can also be put to work when it's time to reach inside yourself and pull that story out to begin with. It's been said that our dreams fuel the stories we tell, but I think a good old fashioned nightmare can be just as compelling if you're willing to delve therein.

You might assume I'm talking about writing horror, but it's actually much broader than that. While nightmares can be an obvious source of inspiration for scary stories, your inner fears can be put to work in just about any genre, if you can find a way to harness them.

What Are You Afraid Of?

The first step, of course, is shining a powerful spotlight into the recesses of your mind, finding out where those innermost fears of yours are hiding. It might not be as easy as you think; while most of us probably have no problem identifying the obvious surface fears—like the squicky feeling you get when faced with something that creeps or crawls—some things lurk much deeper within the psyche. That's why it's useful to make a distinction between fear and anxiety, as they often come from two very different places. But in my (mostly uneducated) opinion, they are two sides of the same coin.

The raw, instinctive emotion that we tend to think of when discussing fear is generally caused by an outside threat or force of some kind. This external stimulus usually triggers the fight-or-flight response, and a whole host of physical reactions occur, from adrenaline dumps to accelerated heart and breath rates. This is what you feel when you're threatened by physical danger of some kind, and it kept your ancestors alive when they had to worry about being eaten by giant cats if they got too sloppy.

Anxiety, on the other hand, generally involves a broader spectrum of psychological and physiological responses, depending on the person and the circumstances. It usually means a general feeling of concern and unease, but can run the gamut from simple nervousness all the way into a genuine fear response. Causes range anywhere from the daily stresses and demands of life to the deeply ingrained insecurities brought on by external factors like social pressure. There's a good chance you know someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, as it's one of the more common forms of mental illness. These feelings kept your ancestors alive too, but it was because they were worrying whether or not they'd gathered enough twigs and berries to make it through the winter.

Put Your Id to Work

Once you've acknowledged the existence of your fears and anxieties, as well as the differences that comprise each, you can get to the work of injecting them into your stories. Both can be employed to great effect, depending on the kind of story you're telling. Let's take a look at those two (admittedly broad) categories we've carved out.

Fear with a capital "F" is the most obviously applicable of the two, since it relies almost wholly on external stimuli. This is where your antagonistic force comes in, threatening the well-being of your protagonist (and by extension, the reader) in some way. If you're writing horror, this might be a supernatural force out for aimless vengeance, menacing your poor protagonist with the threat of the unknown. Or perhaps it's a homicidal maniac that stalks them throughout the course of the book, building up to one terrifying confrontation in which the axe is finally raised.

If it's a fantasy world you're toiling in, you might tap into your inner arachnophobia when it's time for your hero to battle it out with the giant spider that stands in their way, transferring your own disturbed state onto the character as you envision every frightening, arachnid feature. How will your characters react to the fight-or-flight response when it kicks in? Will they run the other way or draw their sword and plant their feet? What will the reader learn from this, both of the characters themselves and of the antagonists? Think about these questions, and how best you can use the answers to manipulate reader reaction. Having your characters face their fear is a great way to reveal what makes them tick.

Anxieties are an even better avenue for revealing character, however, since so much of it involves inner struggle of some kind. More importantly, almost every one of us knows what it's like to engage those kinds of problems at some point in our lives. Whether it's stress or insecurity, we've all been there, and we all know how powerless those emotions can make you feel if you let them get the better of you. You might have your romantic protagonist falter in the presence of a love interest, for example, because he or she is insecure about their appearance in the same way you are. Or perhaps the personal stakes they're facing threaten to outweigh the perceived importance of the task at hand, forcing them to make a tough decision. These kinds of internal dilemmas can make a compelling character instantly identifiable, even  if the circumstances aren't quite the same for the reader as they are for you. If portrayed well, conflicts like these can even serve a therapeutic end, for reader and writer alike.

So the next time you're tugging at that brain of yours, trying to shape the conflict in your work into something compelling and gut-wrenching, don't be afraid to look in the mirror first. Take a long, honest assessment of yourself, and take inventory of the dark things that lurk in the back of your mind. Not only will you get a better story out of it, but you might be better off having faced that part of yourself down. And don't just conquer that Cimmerian part of your id; put it to work. Exploit it.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via cc

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Murder Your Darlings

Last month, I did a little musing on the art of making your characters hate you, calling it "ruthless writing." It has since occurred to me, however, that abusing your characters is far from the only way to write ruthlessly. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better word to describe what I believe is the perfect writer's mindset. You should be ruthless every time you sit down at that desk and summon the creative forces. After all, every editor, agent, and reader who ends up aiming their eyes at your precious story has absolutely no reason to treat it with kid gloves of any kind. They expect to be entertained, and if you cannot meet that one provision, they will ruthlessly close your book.

So, I've decided to turn the broad topic of ruthless habits into a blog series of sorts. I say "of sorts" because this is largely loose and unplanned, so I'm not sure how many entries it will entail or how regularly I'll post them. But from time to time, when fancy strikes, I'll write a bit about taking those gloves off and getting your hands bloody dirty. Today, I'm going to talk about those precious darlings of yours, and the liberal relationship they ought to have with the chopping block.

Die, Die, Die My Darling

Now, when I say you should "murder your darlings," I am not telling you to shoot your girlfriend, drown your puppy, or poison your goldfish (and I am prepared to testify to that effect in a court of law). This phrase is actually quite an old one in the world of writing, and there's a good chance you heard it long before stumbling onto my little section of the multiverse. I first read it in Stephen King's On Writing (which I'd recommend to any budding scribe, whether you're a fan of his work or not), but it's usually attributed to a lecture series by renowned writer and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings."

Most of us have been there at one time or another. The muse lights on our shoulder and the words come pouring out, seemingly of their own volition, and before we know it we've written something beautiful. We read that glorious sentence (or paragraph or scene) again and again, proud to have produced a string of words that we know rivals anything in one of the latest bestsellers. Then, we continue on with our work, fingers crossed that the rest of the manuscript will measure up. Perhaps, if we are well practiced, we are lucky enough to produce several of these darling moments of literary enlightenment. They help to keep us moving through the tough parts, feeling like greatness is always just outside of our fingertips, and if we keep lunging forward we might even grab another handful or two.

And so comes revision. We steel ourselves and break out the axe, ready to chop our manuscript to pieces in service of style, structure, and a good yarn. We cut a swath through our work, weeding out the bad, the boring, and the watered down, and then—gasp—it happens. We find ourselves staring at one of those little pieces of greatness that we so loved, one of those darlings, and are forced upon a horrifying realization. It doesn't serve the story.

Must My Darling Die?

This can be a tough moment to wrestle with, particularly for a new writer. When you're still struggling with the nuances of the craft, still questioning whether or not this is even the path you were meant for, chances are the last thing you want to do is cut away one of those shimmering beacons of hope and potentiality that says you might be a damn good writer one day if you keep at this. Those are the parts of your work that you want to cling to. They validate all those days spent laboring over a keyboard. They eclipse all of the odd looks you've ever received from doubters and naysayers. The last thing you want to do is put your finger on that backspace key and pretend like they never existed.

But you must. Every single word that you put in front of your reader must serve a greater purpose. Anything that does not impart character, support theme, or move the story forward is just useless window dressing, no matter how well written and no matter how proud of it you are. If you want to save those words to remind yourself what you're capable of, that's perfectly fine. Paste it into another document, save it, print it out—hell, post it on your blog. But do not leave it in your story. Do not succumb to the temptation of fruitless self-indulgence. If all goes according to plan, your reader will never have the chance to thank you for it, but chances are you will thank yourself later.

And don't worry; it gets easier. You'll probably always have those conflicted moments from time to time, hesitant to let go of a particularly attractive piece of text. But the longer you engage in ruthless revision, the more comfortable you will be hacking away at the unnecessary, and those moments of indecision will grow shorter and shorter. Then, one day, you may open up that folder of slain darlings and find they weren't even as pretty as you thought they were. As you continue to grow in the craft, what you once considered your best work may one day be an average Tuesday afternoon's auto-pilot, and on that day you will be thankful to have written ruthlessly. Trust me.

photo credit: Bryan Bruchman via cc

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Make Your Characters Hate You

One of the most popular exercises some writers like to utilize when crafting new characters for a project is to write out a mock interview. The writer will ask the character about everything from their hopes and dreams to their favorite food, all in an effort to get inside their head and gain a better understanding of the personality and motivations within. But have you ever tried asking your characters about you? If you did, what do you think they'd say? What would happen if your protagonist was a real person? How would they react if they found out that you were behind every beat of their heart, every turn of their world? Would they thank you? Would they bow down and worship you as their lord and creator?

I can only speak for myself, but I'm fairly certain every last one of mine would try their damnedest to wrap their figmental hands around my throat and snuff the life right out of me. You see, I haven't exactly been kind to the denizens of my little multiverse, especially my protagonists. My stories inevitably become sheer hell for most of them, as they stumble along through one calamity after another, dancing to every sadistic whim that emerges from my imagination. I once participated in an exercise for a writing workshop that had me write a small piece in which one of my main characters introduced me to the rest of the group. It didn't turn out the way I expected. Tasked with describing myself from that poor fellow's point of view, I ended up putting myself on trial. The character cast himself as prosecuting attorney, characterizing me as the devil incarnate, wielding not a pitchfork but a pen. You know, I honestly can't say I blame the guy after all I've put him through.

Ladders, Viper Pits, and Character Adversity

But what else can I do? I have a story to tell. And I can't bore my readers by spoiling my characters. One of Kurt Vonnegut's famous rules for short fiction is that every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water. But you can't just let them reach out and grab it. You've got to let them parch for a while. Put that glass on a rooftop and give them a broken ladder. Put it at the bottom of a viper pit. In fact, in one of the rules that follows, Vonnegut encourages writers to be sadists. "No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of," he says.

In other words, character adversity is one of the most fundamental pieces of groundwork in a compelling story. It provides the lion's share of drama and tension that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and won't let them look away. We don't root for John McClane in Die Hard because he shoots all the bad guys and rescues the girl. We root for him because he has to fall down a flight of stairs and walk barefoot on broken glass to do it. Would we still love The Lord of the Rings if Mount Doom had been in Frodo's backyard the whole time? Of course not. The real story isn't just about a magic ring—it's about that harrowing journey to Mordor. By the end, the reader feels just as battle weary as the broken fellowship.

So the next time you're about to bring the hammer down on those poor, unfortunate characters of yours, do not hesitate. Turn away with a callous heart when they look up at you with Bambi eyes and question your cruelty. They may not deserve the beating you've given them, and they certainly didn't ask for it, but if you are their god, then the reader must be yours, and the satisfaction of the reader is wrought by their tears. They must suffer for the sake of your story, perhaps even give their lives for it. And if they curse you for that, you know you've done your job well.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes of all time, from Nobel laureate AndrĂ© Gide:

“What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.” 

photo credit: Kell Bailey via cc
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