Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Throughout my young writing life, I’ve always been searching for a method to the madness, a system of sorts. Then someone comes along and reminds me what I’m doing all this for. Amazingly, it’s a college professor giving advice unlike any of my own professors! I need to wrap my mind around this now.

Kudos to someone who teaches not for the sake of knowledge itself, but to inspire.

Draft No. 4

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve…

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Using Dialogue More Effectively

Too much dialogueSearched for help on the internet again when I ran into trouble with my last story. I had pages and pages of nearly unbroken dialogue, which while tells the story, is kinda flat. Aside from inserting action bits in between, I was wondering how else I could make the dialogue read smoother. i.e. In more direct term, less stunted.

Important: What I want is smoother, more flowing, not more emotive or dramatic. That gets tiresome after a while. The problem with dialogue is when you try to add structure to it. He says “something” in one paragraph, she says “whatever” in the next. Then to break up the monotony and make it seem like there’s some up and downs going on, we rely on describing how she is feeling or how the words come out.

Using an extreme example I found online from TheWriterlyLife

This is bad:

“You broke my heart!” she screamed.
“It’s not my fault!” he growled.
“But you cheated on me!” she wailed.
“I’m sorry — it just happened,” he stammered.

This is better:

“You broke my heart!” she said.
“It’s not my fault!” he said.
“But you cheated on me!”
“I’m sorry — it just happened.”

And as TheWriterlylife explains:

The problem with this passage is that the tags start overshadowing the actual words being spoken. They’re completely unnecessary. They are often crutches in our writing; in reality, the words themselves should suggest the tone with which they are spoken. In fact, using “he said” and “she said” is so familiar to readers that the words blur into the background, retreating so that the main action of dialogue can come to the fore. That’s why it’s best to keep wordy dialogue tags to a minimum and just use “said” for most of your dialogue.

Often you try to describe what she is feeling. This is simply TELLING the reader instead of EXPRESSING it to him. I’m looking through some of my past writing and realised that I’m pretty guilty of it. I’ve read about it before, about how the simple “said” is actually more invisible and thus better than laughed, growled, snarled, chortled. One is a speech, one is an action, putting them side by side tends to draw the attention away from the other.

I’m going to be slightly more mindful of this moving ahead, which includes using the following in dialogue more often

  1. Better use of punctuation. Question, exclamation points and the infamous incomplete sentence like but… have to be used more correctly and to have more impact.
  2. Expressive Words Adopting the use of exclamation words or expressive words more (which I’m having some trouble with) like What the hell, damn you — Admit it, you automatically exclamation pointed the words without even thinking right?
  3. One action per dialogue Trying to let one single action at the start of a mini-conversation drive the emotion and action of 3-4 lines of to-and-fro dialogue.

One book I can recommend where this is used a lot is The Bookcase by Nelson DeMille. There’s a lot of interrogation scenes in it where it’s just 2 people going back and forth for quite a few pages. So basically, he had the same problem as me – crapload of dialogue, but he handled it like a best-selling author would and I didn’t.

Here’s a lengthy chunk from Nelson Demille’s The Book Case

“Good luck.” Every store clerk and waiter in this town wants you to know they’re really a writer, an actor, a musician, or an artist. Just in case you thought they were a clerk or a waiter. I asked Scott, “What time did you get here this morning?”

He replied, “As I told the other policeman, I got here about seven thirty.”

“Right. Why so early?”

“Early?”

“You’re scheduled for eight thirty.”

“Yeah…Mr. Parker asked me to get here early.”

“Why?”

“To stock shelves.”

“The shelves look stocked. When’s the last time you sold a book?”

“I had some paperwork to do.”

“Yeah? Okay, take me through it, Scott. You got here, opened the door—front door?”

“Yeah.” He reminded me, “It’s all in my statement.”

“Good. And what time was that?”

“I opened the door a little before seven thirty.”

“And it was locked?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know that Mr. Parker was here?”

“No. Well, not at first. I noticed the lights were on in his office up in the loft, so I called up to him.”

“I assume he didn’t answer.”

“No…he…so I thought maybe he was in here—in the stockroom—so I came in here to get to work.”

This basically follows the principles I stated above. Doesn’t look half-bad at all without any crutched expressive words and it’s a very decent chunk. One benefit of this style is how flowing the dialogue goes. In your mind, you don’t really stop to think until the end of the conversation.

To conclude, read the article from MyWriterlyLife, read a few technically-well written books like The Book Case and just be mindful.

P.S: I’m currently reading Bag Of Bones by Stephen King as well, realised the conversation pieces are written pretty much the same way. So remember, let your words do the expressing and flush the telling expressions down the toilet.

P.S: As to what happened to my dialogue in my story as mentioned at the start of the article. After cutting out all the saids, chides, rebukes, angrily and hesitations, I think i shaved off close to 500 words without losing any intent.

Until next time…

Write Habits?

Writing

My Writing Habits

I’m a late-riser, and a late-sleeper. Since there’s no one who needs my time, I basically plan my own day, preferring to write at night, say from 11pm to 4am, when the house is quiet, and when I’m most productive. This is when I write most of my blog posts and do most of my writing. The rest of the time is usually spent doing other writerly stuff like reading or editing.

I get a ‘second’ wind around 5pm – 8pm where I find a can write a fair bit as well. In total, I try to keep about 6-7 hours of pure writing time a day. Anymore and my eye sight gets fuzzy and I just get too tired and go do some other stuff.

From this, you can tell my bio-clock is probably screwed from spending too much time in another timezone 12 hours away since I visit my fiancee in San Fran while I’m in Singapore. (Going back there again in April.)

It’s not right, but it’s how I write.

Writer Work Ethics

That got me thinking about the work-ethics and habits that writers should generally keep, since I know I’m definitely nowhere near role-model standards. So I dug up some recent articles that gives a brief glimpse into the life of writers.

Here is it. BrainPickings.Org – Daily Routine Writers

In it, it chronicles the best bits/habits that some writers have credited for their success. Note, this has nothing to do with writing skill or story-development, its just personal habits to make you more efficient and feel better about what you do.

And for a more detailed look at one of the writer’s routine – BrainPickings.Org – Kurt Vonnegut’s Routine

This post is awesome from the get go with this quote that most of us probably live with everyday.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

One of the habits that greatly disturbs me, simply because it seems to be emulated by many writers, including a famous one – Michael Crichton, is this one quoted by William Gibson.

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

[…]

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

This worries me actually. Is sleep deprivation and the closing out of everything but your story so essential to the process. One of my fellow bloggers, Lindaghill, just finished the first draft of her novel as well, and well, it mentions sleep again as the reward for her efforts. Then again, she has an epic 210,000 word novel, I’m not even to 5 figures.

I understand an artist must suffer for his work, but I wonder if there’s some brain chemistry involved here that turns you into a ‘finisher’ when your brain doesn’t get enough sleep. As mentioned in the Michael Crichton post, there seems to be a link between the pace of writing to the amount of sleep you get. Less sleep seems to equate to less description, more action oriented story-driving to bring the story to a close.

Good thing then, that I’m still in the honeymoon period of writing a book. But seriously, these comments seem a little scary. Stop trying to scare people from finishing their book! I’ll set a good example and wake up at 11am and sleep at 9pm and still finish my book.

So what kooky habits do you keep as a writer? Or in life in general.

Related articles

Video Games: A Better Emotional Trigger Than Books?

This article is also known as I’ve Just Completed Starcraft II On Brutal Difficulty, Booyah!

Ok, cool video right! That has nothing to do with my post actually. I just love it so much.

But whether you’re a gamer or not, you’ve got to admit that some of the best and most epic plots in science fiction today come from video games instead of movies or books. You don’t understand the meaning of epic until you’ve spent years witnessing the dramatic rise and fall of the Lich King in Warcraft, spanning five games and tens of millions of active players, or gripping your seat as the cinematic in-your-face story-telling of the Call Of Duty Series plays out. When I think of epic today, games come to mind, not movies or books.

Granted, most games are still filled with cheesy B-movie dialogue and lots of inconsistencies, but when it comes to inspiring zealotry and loyalty amongst its fans, few books or movies come close to the audience that video games have. Proof? Here’s a scene from the Starcraft 2 launch. The last time I saw something like this, a little something called the iPhone was launched.

Image

I’ve just completed the latest instalment of Starcraft 2, called Heart Of The Swarm on the highest difficulty setting, and I’m writing this post because I’m still tingling from watching the final cinematic after a brutal one and a half hour battle bringing the entirety of my Zerg Swarm against the unscrupulous Sons of Korhal. That makes absolutely no sense to you right? That’s because you haven’t spent the last 14 years of your life waiting to bring down these sons of bitches.

14 years. That’s how long it took Blizzard, the company behind the series, to bring the core storyline to a close, and I have enjoyed every last minute of it. My heart is still pumping, my adrenaline is still doing somersaults, and I feel very much alive. I don’t remember feeling like this after watching the Avengers or reading Harry Potter.

Lots of Lasers

Lots of Lasers

Many people think it’s just a game, pressing buttons over and over again until you win. I’ll like to tell you now that’s it not. Games, as silly as it sounds, are more than just about the gameplay. It’s about living a story in a beautifully crafted world and going on some insane adventure. You know, pretty much like reading a book. But with over the top visuals, overly dramatic voice acting and horrible reading off a script, just like an audio book! We’re willing to put up with shitty gameplay if there is a compelling reason for us to keep going. Most of the time that means a solid storyline. If you don’t believe me, ask any Final Fantasy fan out there. *cue evil laughter*

Starcraft is ten years in the making. Discussion boards, forums and fan fiction tide us diehards over while we drool and argue over every single detail and leak. And when it finally gets released, grown man can get all emotional and teary when they finally get their hands on their shiny new boxes of the game depicting a zombie-like woman with eight spines growing out of her back. Aside from Harry Potter and Twihards, which other books or movies can claim the same level of emotional attachment and excitment? As a product, all the way from development to the satisfaction that its give to the end-user, games seem to be able to go one level deeper than other forms of media.

Zerg Attack!

Zerg Attack!

Perhaps it just reminds me of younger, more carefree days. Starcraft was a game I started playing when I was 16, now I’m 30. That’s half of my life following what I would call, the science fiction universe of my generation. The 80s had Star Wars and Tron, the late 90s have Starcraft and Halo. And for the fans of Starcraft, Heart Of The Swarm also brings something very important to any overarching story – Closure.

You see this installment effectively finishes the story started more than a decade ago in the head on some kooky writer. When was the last time you had to wait a decade for an anticipated sequel?
More importantly, Heart of the Swarm gives a GOOD kind of closure. The one where you feel satisfied and fulfilled, but wouldn’t mind coming back for more. One door closes and another one opens, not like the crappy conclusion of Harry Potter and Twilight *cue more evil laughter.*

Yet, the wider public continues to put down video games as some form of sensory overloading experience without much substance, while touting how much better it would be to spend the time reading. What gives? If you’re one of these persons out there that strongly believe that video games are ‘bad’ forms of media, I’ll like to ask you why haven’t you tried living in the World of Warcraft, taking a spin on the Hyperion in Starcraft II or follow the antics of Soup and Captain Price in Call Of Duty. Game worlds that, in my opinion, totally rock the socks off Hogwarts and whatever planet Star Wars plays on.

If you are depressed by the devolution of the reading world with the continued success of Twilight and 50 Shades, why not take a gander and explore the world of videos games. The industry is going from strength to strength melding the visual magic of cinema with plot lines that rival that of Game Of Thrones any day. It’s just a matter of picking the right titles.

I’ll probably regret this post when the rose-tinted glasses of my level 70 Kerrigan blasting through a fleet of battlecruisers comes off, but for now, I’m happy. Satisfied. Fulfilled. Some of the best stories I’ve experienced in the last few years came not from books, but from my Xbox and my Mac. If you are a proponent of stories and detest gaming, then I’ll just shake my head while secretly gloating in the fact that the fictional worlds I’ve been too are far richer than any of yours.

And with that, I’ve leave you with another cinematic of the game that wraps up one of the best moment of the original game. Enjoy.

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The Two Pillars Of Plot Progression

story-mountain-plotJust read this FANTASTIC article on Writer’s Digest with regards to plot in a story. For the past few days, I’ve been kind of confused about the ebb and flow of a story. There always seems to be a method to it, a certain fixed structure, but why are so many famous authors able to do it in their own ways without being seen as boring or repetitive. Heck, Michael Crichton uses the same thing in ALL his books but they still hit you like a truck when you read them.

It’s also so amusing to me, because i just read and reblogged this article yesterday about Plotter vs Pantser. To me, I always thought the optimal point was somewhere in the middle but closer to the Pantser. Creativity should always be more important than the presentation, after all that’s why you’re a Writer right?

This article nails it on the day, by objectively stating out the two main things you need in a plot, namely the 2 pillars needed for every story. These are your scene separators, and unless you’re writing a seven novel epic, they serve to divide your story into the three essential parts – Introduction, Conflict, Resolution, the arrangement of everything else is arbitrary as long as you hit these two checkpoints!

The First Pillar

The beginning of a novel tells us who the main characters are and introduces the situation at hand (the story world). It sets the tone and the stakes. But the novel does not take off or become “the story” until that first pillar is passed. Think of it as a Doorway of No Return. The feeling must be that your lead character, once
she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved.

The Second Pillar

The second pillar is another kind of Doorway of No Return: It makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution.

The article gives a lot of examples of this in actual books, so please read it if you want to go into more detail on them. I highly encourage you to read it and maybe subscribe to them. They have a lot of great stuff.

My attitude on writing and plot outlining has changed a lot after reading this. In the past, I believe you should have an point by point outline of how you should proceed before you even start writing. Hey, that’s what most writers guides say right, failing to plan is planning to fail. The first article I’ve read that actually changed this perception somewhat, was some advice from dear Ernest Hemingway. And thanks to him…..

I call bullshit on over plotting now due to 2 main reasons:

(1) As you write and get immersed into your work, you get a TON of “Ah-Ha! This will be awesome!” moments where you bring the story totally off tangent and is miles better than what you wanted to write. I’m up to 7,000 words on a plot outline I randomly generated on Monday, and frankly I ditched the outline and just went balls to the wall on what I felt is best for the story. Taking short time outs to rethink where I wanted to go, but that’s it. it was only after reading this article that I knew why I was able to just keep writing. I hit the milestones, I gave the story a reason to carry on! Something that had frankly been a big issue for me in the last few weeks. Now, I knew what I wanted in the story in the most basic of sense. Not a blow by blow, this must happen then that plot line.

(2) By setting too many checkpoints, you are literally forcing your story along a path, blocking out a lot of potential. Some add these in later as sub-plots or meaningless drivel in their book (because its too good to pass up), but honestly, you’re doing that to make your story better and more readable because your main plot sucks. If your subplot and other ideas are that good to be incorporated, use them, make them part of the whole. Personally I feel a lot of fantasy / superhero and science fiction stories are guilty of this. Just because you have a unique setting shouldn’t stop you from going off tangent, a lot of them are guilty of reading like a point A to point B storyline. Whereas contemporary works tend to be more whimsical and flutter all over the place, but mostly relegated to the side plot or love story inside.

Note of course, if you’re so creative, you can come up with a totally awesome plot just by sitting there and think through your entire story in one sitting, please ignore me. I’m clearly someone who lives for the moment, and get all excited whenever I start writing and my creative juices just start spurting out. 

From now on, just go with the flow

While the article uses a suspension bridge analogy, I prefer to think of writing as driving through a desert. You have certain checkpoints you need to reach to refuel and recharge, and you also want to get out of there sooner or later. But that is ALL YOU NEED. Anything else is an arbitrary limitation. If you found a short cut or a more scenic route, why not just take it!  If nothing else, hey it sure is more fun and enjoyable!

This will be my approach to writing from now on. And I shouldn’t have to replan my plot or story that often anymore. The pillars should be transferrable from one story to another, and by changing the setting and characters, i should be able to write a brand new story by letting the desert sands take me wherever they want.

I might expand on this concept a little in future, in conjunction with my changing thoughts of how characters should be made to fit into a story. Slowly but surely, I feel like I’m learning, not to write, but how to craft. And in this aspect, I’m learning that LESS is more, it’s just how you wrap your head around it.

Have a great day ahead.

Sighhh, I really need to learn to write shorter posts. 

Balancing Dialogue & Narrative

Dialogue

Some useful tips when writing or rewriting your work:

So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.

  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”

  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

I’m guilty of the second one. Trying to break up the yak yak now with advice from the third point. View the full article and all of its useful links here: www.christcraig.com