Category Archives: developing your craft

email (and advice) to a young aspiring writer

Okay, as far as blog posts go this is a bit of a cheat. This is from an email I wrote a few months ago to a charming sixth grader who emailed me and asked for writing advice. I found this a very interesting assignment, and gave it some thought (see me in the photo, I’m thinking, thinking). This was my response. Let me know if there’s anything that I should have added.

Dear (incredible young person who had the fantastic taste to read and like my book and wants to be a writer):

Thank you so much for your email, and I am very sorry I took this long
to respond — my life has been a bit crazy lately. I’m delighted
that you enjoyed UNINVITED.

How fantastic that you identify yourself as a writer. I can tell you
this: once you have the desire, the ambition, to write, it never goes
away. I’ve met so many people who started writing when they were
young — and then put that desire away to do more ‘practical’ things
— only to come back to it ten or twenty or thirty years later,
wishing they had been writing all along and regretting that lost
time and development.

So my first advice (and probably most important): don’t stop!
Keep writing! Don’t let anybody discourage you. Find the people who
will support you and help you grow as a writer — and listen to
*them*, not to anybody else. You have a huge advantage because you’re
starting out so young, so make the most of it. The more time and
practice you put into your craft, the better and better you will
become. Not to mention, you are growing up in an era where
storytelling and communication will be more important than ever, and
not just for writers — for everyone and anyone who wants to get a
message across that will reach people on an emotional as well as
intellectual level. Anyone can get facts off the Internet. But not a
lot of people will be able to frame those facts within the kind of
context that can persuade people, keep their
attention, and create actual change in the world. So your creativity
and your ability to reach out to people will only become more
important as time goes on.

I’m sure you already know this, but reading is incredibly important.
Read as much as you can, as often as you can, and follow your
interests wherever they lead you. Read what you want to read, and not
just what you think you ‘should’ read. Do that, and you’ll already be
ahead of the game — most aspiring writers don’t read nearly enough.

Find teachers and mentors who can give you constructive criticism and
help you improve. Writing truly is about revision. It’s fine if the
first draft is lousy — the first draft is just about getting it down.
Revision is about fixing it and making it better. You can
always make it better, so don’t be afraid to write badly. Just get it
down, and then revise.

Try to finish most of what you begin. Nobody finishes every story they
start, and that’s okay. But try to finish most of them. 🙂

Develop some passions other than writing — so you can write about
them.
Learn about history, philosophy, science, art, pop culture,
travel, psychology, vampires — whatever interests and excites you.
Cultivate a deep curiosity about the world. Learn about people.
That’s how you’ll get your ideas. Originality happens when you
combine different ideas, mix them with your own personality, and come
up with something new.

A writer now is expected to have an online platform — to blog and
Twitter, etc. Publishing is changing very quickly now, so pay close
attention to what writers do online — what works, what doesn’t. Read lots of
blogs, and expect to be blogging one day yourself. It takes a long time
to develop an online platform, so this is another area where your youth is a
great advantage. Plan to learn about social media and online marketing and
personal branding. Think of yourself as not just a writer, but a creative
entrepreneur. Your writing will be your business (as well as your
art). You are an artist *and* a businesswoman.

The most important thing is to have a fresh and distinctive ‘voice’.
The more you write, the more your ‘voice’ will emerge and become its
own original thing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different
styles, or imitate writers you like. Your voice will emerge from that
mash-up of influences. Take chances. Be bold!

As you get older, try to find another job or career that you can do
as well as write (remember, never stop writing). You will have to
make a living, at least until you can support yourself with your
writing (and no matter what anybody says, it *is* possible). But
work is good for other reasons too, not just economic independence —
it keeps you connected to the world (writing can be very isolating)
and it gives you life experience and stuff to write *about*.

And keep reaching out to writers, the way you did with me. Writers
for the most part want to help other writers, because we know how
tough and lonely writing can be, and we’re always excited to find
the members of our farflung, scattered tribe. So you’re also likely to
make some good friends that way.

I hope this helps you. Let me know what you think, and how your own
writing develops.

warmest,
Justine

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how to think more creatively and come up with better ideas

1

There’s a show I like to watch when I’m on the treadmill called A WORK OF ART. In the same vein as TOP CHEF or PROJECT RUNWAY, it’s about a group of artists who complete an assignment each week. Their works are put on display and critiqued by the judges. One of them is pronounced that week’s winner and one of them is eliminated.

My favorite is Miles, a talented twentysomething who is puppy-cute and has OCD (as soon as I learned he had OCD I figured he’d be one of the top contenders, because no one else in the group is likely to be as obsessed as he is, which means they probably haven’t put in the same kind of intense and deliberate practice). Miles, overstimulated by his new environment and the abrupt change in routine, is having trouble sleeping. In two out of the first five episodes, after the artists are presented with their assignment and given a half hour or so to think up an idea, Miles finds a place to curl up and take a nap. His peers can only shake their heads and question his judgment.

The irony is that Miles is probably doing one of the best things he can do to shift into creative thinking. Sure enough, he wakes up with an idea, gets to work, produces a successful piece and places near the top of that week’s competition.

A nap is a powerful thing. Studies have linked napping to an increased boost in creativity (when Einstein was troubled by a problem, he would lie down and take a long nap). Although the most effective nap seems to be at least 90 minutes and containing REM sleep (dream sleep), even a quick doze will relax your body and alter your brain rhythms and allow you to access the more creative, freewheeling part of your mind.

If you can’t nap, zone out and daydream. Mental wandering might not seem like a productive use of time, but that’s when creative thinking is actually taking place. Your mind is free to roam through all its memory banks, including places that your conscious mind can’t get to, and to pick up odd snippets and fragments. This is when you’re likely to make those unexpected connections or insights that will solve that problem you’ve been mulling over all week. A recent study at the University of British Columbia has demonstrated that, when daydreaming, the brain is actually recruiting complex regions of itself including the “executive network”, the command-and-control center of your mind that gathers all the streams of information coming in from various sources and evaluates and interprets them.

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What is an idea, anyway?

James Webb Young says “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”.

Jack Foster, in his book HOW TO GET IDEAS agrees: “everything I’ve ever read about ideas talks about combining or linkage or juxtaposition of synthesis or association”.

In her book THE CREATIVE BRAIN, Nancy C Andreasen presents studies that demonstrate how the myth of the tormented artist might not be just a myth. A significantly higher percentage of artists and writers have close relatives with schizophrenia than does the rest of the population. (Quick note: I’m a writer and one of my own uncles had schizophrenia.) It’s been suggested that the brain of an unusually creative person doesn’t filter incoming stimuli in quite the same manner as a more “normal” brain: instead, information jostles around in a way that encourages freewheeling and associative thinking, linking disparate elements in unexpected relationships. When this process is coherent, what might result is a new play or symphony or artistic technique or scientific theory. When this process breaks down, what might result is mental illness. So perhaps unusually creative people do live a little closer to the edge of sanity than the rest of us, and some might even cross it now and again (John Nash, the subject of Ron Howard’s film A BEAUTIFUL MIND, is one example).

Which doesn’t mean that you need to go insane to come up with good ideas.

But it’s important to recognize that in order to be creative you need to train your mind to go beyond the patterns of everyday routine. As Tim Hurson puts it in his book THINK BETTER, “Human beings are far more skilled at following old patterns than at thinking new thoughts.” Although it’s almost impossible to escape from our patterns of living and thinking – which influence us in ways we’re not always aware of – it’s possible to think through them.

One way to do this is by brainstorming…but Hurson makes the point that most people brainstorm badly. Most people will list some ideas, say “yes” or “no” to each idea as it gets jotted down, and then stop at the first idea that seems “right”.

Good brainstorming gets rid of the binary. Each idea isn’t met with a “yes” or a “no”…but a maybe.

Good brainstorming separates critical thinking from creative thinking. The two cannot co-exist; you’re either thinking one way or the other. So to immediately judge your ideas is to limit the quality and quantity of the ideas that you can come up with in the first place.

Good brainstorming lets the creative side of your mind have full reign. No criticism is allowed. The crazier and wilder the idea, the better; as Hurson says, it’s always easier to tame down an idea than it is to wild one up.

Good brainstorming also makes it a point to generate a long, long list of ideas. Hurson talks about “the miracle of the third third”: the best ideas, the most innovative and interesting and gamechanging ideas, come in the final third of the brainstorming session.

Studies have shown that…the first third of the session tends to produce mundane, every-one-has-thought-of-them-before ideas. These are the early thoughts that lie very close to the surface of our consciousness. They tend not to be new ideas at all but recollections of old ideas we’ve heard elsewhere….

…the second third of a good brainstorming session produces ideas that begin to stretch boundaries. These are the ideas that are often still constrained by what we know but are more than simple regurgitations of what we’ve heard or thought before.

The third third is where the diamonds lie…These are the unexpected connections…In bad brainstorming, we never get to the third third. In good brainstorming, getting to the third third is the point.

(The more ideas you come up with, the more good and useful ideas will be among them. Then you can sift through the ideas, refine and develop the ones you like best, or combine some of them into still other ideas.)

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, wrote: “The problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Ever mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”

The Greeks have a word called kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” You must empty yourself before you can fill yourself again.

Remember this the next time you brainstorm. Think up ideas until you get to the point where you don’t think there are any ideas left in you.

Then go on and think up some more.

Hitting that point of frustration – that “there are no more ideas in the world” point – is a good sign. It means you’re empty. The real fun can begin. You’ve entered the “third third”, and it’s a place where not a lot of people know to go.

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Hollywood is known for the “high concept idea”. High concept means that the idea has mass appeal, is familiar yet new, and can be communicated in a few words – “snakes on a plane” – that nonetheless conveys the sense of the entire movie on an immediate, visceral level.

Putting aside the fact that these films tend to suck – note to Hollywood: a good movie requires a skill, depth and flair of execution as well as an idea – it’s worth taking a look at how the concept of high concept might be of use to novelists. You might or might not be writing for the masses, but high-concept forces you to know what your story is in a way that can be easily communicated to people…which means that they can turn around and easily communicate it to others. Your novel doesn’t just get pitched once…it gets pitched over and over again. Editors have to pitch their colleagues on your project in order to drum up enough in-house enthusiasm to buy the manuscript. Sales people then have to sell it to the bookstore buyers. If you’re lucky, bloggers will want to pitch it to their readers, who will like it so much they’ll want to pitch it to their friends.

And what is a high-concept idea but, like any other idea, “a new combination of old elements”?

At his blog STORYFIX, Larry Brooks defines high-concept as

a story idea that delivers more originality — and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that story’s genre.

High concept is not character focused or driven, it suggests a dramatic scenario or device – be it clever, unexpected, unseen, frightening or just plain brilliant – that becomes the landscape upon which characters will reveal themselves.

Story is not character, story is conflict. And high concept implies that conflict.

(Quick note: I would add that conflict is character and character is conflict, because conflict reveals character and character drives conflict. It can be big conflict, or little conflict, blatant conflict or subtle conflict, but there’s gotta be conflict. Do we get insight into your character’s true nature when he’s whistling on his happy walk to Starbucks? Not so much. But what about when he starts arguing with the barista because she doesn’t make his drink fast enough [and refused to sleep with him last Friday]? Conflict fascinates us because it shows us who people are, pushes them past their limits and forces them to change. But I digress.)

Let’s go back to that first bit: a story idea that delivers more originality – and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that genre…

So what is originality? In my previous post I compare originality with soul and quote Donald Maass:

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.

Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.

Finding a high-concept idea, then, means coming up with an idea that is a distinct and unique reflection of you. It lives at the crossroads of your own interests, life experience, passions, obsessions. It fleshes out your personal philosophy, your worldview. It is a combination of the elements of you. Which means that even if someone else stole it, they wouldn’t be able to execute it the way that only you can.

James Bonnet breaks down the “high concept idea” into four parts: fascinating subject matter, great title, awesome inciting incident, sweet hook.

What are the subjects that fascinate you? Make a list. Identify the two or three that compel you the most. How could you combine them into one story? New genres knit themselves into being through the combination of old genres: chick lit + vampires + noir, for example. My own novel-in-progress combines my interests in true crime, abnormal psychology and reincarnation (and of course the love and the sex).

The inciting incident is the story event that sets up the central story problem that needs to be resolved. Everything that happens after the inciting incident happens in some way because of that incident, in one long chain of cause-and-effect.

The ‘hook’ is what makes your story problem unique, fresh, you. It takes a familiar plot (boy meets girl, coming of age, search for a serial killer, vampires in love) and gives it a twist, an unexpected reversal, special circumstances. It raises the stakes and increases interest (perhaps the serial killer is the detective’s brother. Or ex-lover. Or father. Perhaps the coming-of-age is of a brilliant young bisexual artist in Paris during the French Revolution.)

Think about your subject matter, your story problem, your ‘hook’. Try some proper brainstorming for each and all of them. How can you create a story problem out of your combined subject matter? What could be your hook?

Push yourself to find an idea that resonates, that not only seems “original” but sparks a slow-burning fire in the pit of your writer-core and makes a person’s eyes light up when you tell it to them.

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Most of all, don’t stress out. Don’t get frustrated. Push yourself, but don’t get down on yourself. Keep it light and enjoyable. Negativity is death to creativity.

Creative thinking is fun and playful thinking.

Paul Valery once said, “Serious people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.”

For as Arthur Koestler and Jack Foster point out, “the basis of humor is also the basis of creativity – the unexpected joining of dissimilar elements to form a new whole that actually makes sense.” It’s that sudden left turn when you were expecting to go straight. And takes us to all kinds of cool places.

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5 ways to put more ‘soul’ into your writing

What does it mean to write with ‘soul’?

‘Soulful’ gets defined as the “expression of profound emotion”.  But it’s not enough to express it: you need to invoke it in the reader.

Fiction – and some forms of nonfiction – require that you put the reader through a well-crafted emotional experience.

You can also define soulful writing as writing that draws from what is distinctly and uniquely you.  Donald Maass in his book The Fire of Fiction talks about original writing as soulful writing and says that most manuscripts aren’t nearly original enough:

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.

Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.

This is easy to say, but the truth is that even the most accomplished writers can struggle with the concept.  Soulful writing is part technique, part art…and the willingness to make yourself vulnerable.  It’s the ability to “go there”, to “put yourself out there” in ways that feel counter-intuitive.

Because we’re programmed not to do this.  Some of our most powerful psychological defense mechanisms involve rationalizing and intellectualizing in order to protect ourselves from the hard raw work of emotion. But when we write like this, we remain stuck on the surface of the narrative and fail to engage the reader.

The reader is looking for a full-blooded engagement. The reader wants you to shake him up, move him, show him something new, blow the top of his head open (not literally).  The reader doesn’t want you to protect him, he wants you to transport him.

And vulnerability – as Ori Brafman points out in the book CLICK: The Power of Instant Connections– is what draws people in (assuming that your disclosures are appropriate to the context at hand).  Reveal yourself, put yourself out there on the page in order to be ‘found’, and you forge a powerful connection with someone who can now envision the world through, as Maass puts it, “your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion.”

Vulnerability is not the same, in my mind, as oversharing or being self-indulgent.  Oversharing is about telling the reader stuff he doesn’t care to hear; self-indulgence is about writing hollow prose that doesn’t mean anything to anybody except the writer (and maybe the writer’s mother).  When you overshare, when you self-indulge, you’re skating the surface.  You’re telling the reader what to feel instead of drawing her into an experience.  If soulful writing invokes genuine emotion, sentimental writing tries to coax an emotional reaction through surface manipulations, stereotypes and clichés.  Sentimental writing doesn’t “go there”, and as a result it comes off as contrived. And fake.

Some tactics to help you put more soul into your writing:

1. Write from the body.

Stay grounded and focused on the physical:  what the character hears, sees, smells, thinks, and feels.  It’s easy to get so lost in the character’s inner musings, philosophizing and monologues that the reader gets lost as well…and not in a good way.  (Remember that intellectualizing is a defense mechanism that is specifically designed to reduce or eliminate emotion.) Make sure the reader is rooted in a concrete feeling of space and time, and let the reader experience the storyworld through the character’s physical experience of it.  This will make things more immediate and vivid for the reader.

2. Identify the powerful moments in your narrative.

Life is a series of moments, and fiction is a series of interrelated moments with the boring stuff cut out.  Identify the true moments that move your narrative forward, and make sure you write out those moments as full-blooded scenes.  Don’t summarize.  Don’t tell.  Don’t get abstract or philosophical.  Show.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt makes the point that when she was working as a film analyst, she noticed that

A level movies had approximately 10 to 20 scenes total and B-level movies had 35-60 scenes total.  This happened in every single case.  Some A-level movies are now three hours long, but even so, the better movies just don’t have as many scenes as the lesser ones do.  The writers of the B movies were trying to do too much, switching scenes to try and make it seem as if there were a lot of action or drama taking place.  They didn’t use the scenes they had to full effect.  They didn’t use the opportunities for action and drama that were right in front of them.

So:

3.  Explore those moments.  Drill deep.

Ask yourself, how can you go deeper into the scene, plumb it for all its action and drama?  How can you raise the stakes, reveal more about the characters, or hit on some new revelation or insight?  Drill down through the layers of your characters’ motivations.  Examine how they really feel about each other, or what they want from each other, or what they have to lose.  Then experiment with ways of conveying this through action and dialogue.

Searching the souls of your characters is a way of searching your own soul, drawing on all the knowledge and self-awareness you possess (a good writer is by necessity a student of human nature, including her own).  When you’re “writing deep” — when you’re writing from that soulful, subconscious place — you might be surprised at what you find, and the added complexity and vulnerability it brings to your fiction.

4. Try timed writings.

Give yourself 20 minutes to write the scene…and go!   When we did timed exercises in my Writers On Fireworkshop, we were often impressed with just how strong and powerful and, yes, soulful the results were.  Some of the best writing we saw in that workshop came out of those exercises.

I think the reasons for this are twofold.  When you know you have such limited time, you’re forced to cut to the chase.  All the superfluous stuff gets junked and you head straight for the meat of the scene.  At the same time, you’re forced to bypass the censor in your head, who wants to keep everything nice and rationalized and contained.  You dive into the subconscious, which is where you find all the cool stuff.

I’m not saying that an important scene should be written in nothing more than twenty minutes.  But by experimenting with this approach, you can discover new things about the scene, and the characters, that enable you to go there and bring an added emotional richness to your story.

5. Read really good stuff that “goes there”.

A funny thing happens when we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable; we enable other people to permit themselves to be vulnerable.

Make this work for you.  Seek out fiction or nonfiction that is searing, emotional and raw. That gets under your skin and truly moves you.  Let that writer’s ability to be vulnerable inspire some vulnerability of your own.  (One example of a memoir that inspired me this way is Rachel Resnick’s LOVE JUNKIE.  An example of a novel is Siri Husvedt’s WHAT I LOVED.)

Give yourself permission to invite the reader into your soul, and that reader could be yours for life.

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plot is a process, and how to work it

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There’s something beautiful about plot.

Yet plot seems to be a four-letter word, associated with generic or formulaic fiction. But if there isn’t any plot, there isn’t any story (no matter how creatively it’s been constructed), and story is why we read (or at least most of us).

Plot gives the juice and forward thrust to fiction, but more than that: plot is about pattern and meaning. Any exercise in storytelling is an exercise in making meaning: taking the seemingly random and disparate elements of life and showing how they weave together, and why, and the point of it all (even if the point is that there’s no point, which is a point in itself and so undermines that particular thesis, but whatever).

There’s a rich intellectual satisfaction in that.

The human mind is geared towards patterns and relationships and filling in the gaps; we want to know how everything connects, whether we’re scientists puzzling out the mysteries of the universe or novelists investigating the mysteries of the human heart.

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Perhaps one of the problems with plot is the visual metaphor through which it’s so often presented. Plot — and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — is often described as the scaffolding or skeleton on which you hang the elements of your story. This gives the idea of plot as something constructed and workmanlike….and solid, and fixed, as if the ‘bones’ of plot are the bars that hem you in creatively.

This is what took me way too long (and three published novels) to figure out about plot:

Plot is a process.

As Ronald B. Tobias puts it in his book on MASTER PLOTS:

We tend to talk about plots as if they were objects. All of our plot metaphors describe plot as if it were some tangible thing that came in a box. We categorize plots like items in a story inventory. We talk about plot as if it were a dead thing, something static…Plot is dynamic, not static.

Tobias makes the point that “plot is diffusive; it permeates all the atoms of fiction. It can’t be deboned…It is [like] electromagnetism — the force that draws the atoms of the story together. It correlates images, events and people.”

Everything connects.

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The idea that plot is process illuminates, to me, why outlines are problematic. Don’t get me wrong — I believe in outlines, and I outline my own projects like mad. But I learned — repeatedly — that adhering to my outline often worked against the novel, and what the novel wanted to be. In order for the outline to be effective, I had to keep revising it as the novel progressed, so that the outline informs the novel but the growing novel also informs the outline. Since plot isn’t static, the outline couldn’t be either, nor the relationship between the two.

I think there are two reasons for this:

1. Your first ideas are never your best ideas — often your second, third and fourth ideas aren’t your best ideas either (I call these your ‘surface ideas’). Since an outline is written before you start writing the novel, it’s often composed of a bunch of surface ideas.

2. Creativity is a process. Action begets action. You can plan and outline all you want (and I do) but the actual story doesn’t take shape until you actually write the damn thing.

The act of writing — good writing — draws from the deep part of our mind. We go into a kind of zone — a writing trance, a waking dream — that slows our brainwaves and allows us to access our underground storehouse of memories, images, associations.

We think on two different levels: there’s our so-called rational, conscious mind that insists on explaining the world to us (whether or not that explanation is accurate), and our subconscious mind which absorbs all the bits of information that life is constantly beaming into us. Most of this information our rational mind filters out because, in the moment, it doesn’t seem relevant, and because preservation of sanity is a good thing.

But when we write, we’re drawing on the stuff that we don’t know we know, as well as on the stuff we know we know (or think we know but don’t).

Which means we’re also writing two different stories: there’s the surface story, the one we think we’re writing (which is the one we have in outline), and the true story, the deep story, the one that our subconscious is working on behind the scenes and sending up to us in flashes of insight if only we slow down enough to pay attention.

(I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s post on Depth of Work and also his book THE WAR OF ART, which is awesome).

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What this process requires, however, is a tolerance for ambiguity. For what I described in an earlier blog post as “the muck and murk of writing”: the sense that you’re slogging through a dark swamp with no exit in sight (and whether or not you have a full outline, at least in my experience, doesn’t seem to matter).

We like to have a plan in place, we like to move through an orderly and predictable checklist, but creativity doesn’t sequence so easily. The process works off itself. You show up, you see what you already have, you descend into the muck and the murk, and let the process take you further along.

You do what Eric Maisel describes as encountering the work.

5

Plot is the electromagnetic force that brings together premise and character. If, as Tobias points out, plot is the pattern of action, then character is the pattern of motivation, and you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the what without the why.

Premise is the central idea, or theme, that gets your story going. According to Lajos Egri in his classic THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, a good premise is

composed of three parts, each of which is essential…The first part of his premise suggests character…The second part suggests conflict, and the third part…suggests the end of the [story].

So the premise behind Othello is: Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

And so on. The point of your central premise is not to be original. Originality comes from you: that mash-up of mind and personality and beliefs and obsessions and quirky worldview, as well as the unique framework of life experience (and reading) from which you draw your material.

As you slog through the mudwork of process, your premise is your compass. It points you in the direction you want to go. It also informs (or is informed by) your choice of characters. As Egri points out, character dictates plot. Would Macbeth have ended the same way if it wasn’t Macbeth but Gandhi in the central role? Or Luke Skywalker? You get my point.

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Plot is cause-and-effect, and although this seems elemental enough I didn’t fully begin to grasp this until the (extensive) revisions of my third published novel.

But cause-and-effect gets compared to links in a chain, and the process seems more involved…and embroidered…than that.

Plot is one thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing…etcetera. The end result could be as expansive as a tree with a dripping canopy of branches, but it all traces back to the original seed that sparked off the process in the first place.

That strange biological life force that holds the tree together, and keeps it a tree instead of a horse or cow or random bits of bark and leaves — is your plot.

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Plot is also artful. As Tobias puts it:

No writer wants his fiction to be so obvious as to flash a neon sign that says PLOT! You don’t want [the causes of your cause-and-effects] to be so obvious that the reader can’t fall victim to the charms of the story. You want to write in such a way that what you write about seems just a natural part of the story you’ve created.

In other words, you don’t digress, or go on tangents, or use asides — these dilute the power of the story. Tobias quotes Ford Maddox Ford: “A good novel needs all the attention the reader can give it.”

You only appear to digress, or go on tangents, or use asides (this is the “art that conceals your Art”). Because in the end, everything connects. As Ford says, “Not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.”

You work the cause-and-effect in a casual manner, so that the elements of your plot are not obvious (which I suspect is what people really mean when they say something is ‘formulaic’ or ‘generic’ or ‘predictable’).

But nothing in fiction can be incidental. If something doesn’t serve the story, no matter how beautifully written, you have to kill it. You have to slaughter those darlings. Your job as a writer is to keep growing your premise and advancing your story. The trick is to distract your reader with your right hand so that he or she can’t possibly know what the left hand is doing.

Tobias elaborates:

Let me explain it in cinematic terms. We’ve placed the props on the set of the first act. The shotgun is on the back wall. Depending on the director’s shot, he can make the shotgun obvious, with a close-up of it, or he can camouflage the shotgun among the other objects in the room with a medium shot. The close-up calls attention to the shotgun, and anyone who’s ever seen at least one murder mystery knows exactly what’s afoot. But if the director is coy and doesn’t make the shotgun obvious, it will appear unimportant*. Only later…will the viewer realize how important it was.

This same rule applies for conversations and characters. By making the causal world appear casual, the reader accepts the convention that fiction is [as random and casual and digressive] as life.

Only writers know it just ain’t so.

* the movie MATCH POINT, one of my all-time favorites, is an excellent example of this

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the dirty secret truth about talent — and how to grow it


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A writing teacher told me that although it’s easy for her to recognize the students with “talent”, she’s learned that it’s impossible to predict who will develop and succeed as a writer and who will not (the “talented ones”, she said, “tend to disappear and you never hear from them again”).

She told me how she’s witnessed students have “major breakthroughs” and, after years of struggle, suddenly start “writing at a publishable level” – students she never would have thought “had it in them to do that”.  Because of that, she says, she would never, ever tell someone that they lack talent, that their dreams are a waste of time.

She said,  You just can’t predict these things.

Which might make someone question how we define ‘talent’ in the first place.

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According to writers like Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyne, and George Leonard, you maybe can predict who is likely to achieve and who won’t, but it has less to do with obvious ‘talent’ and everything to do with concepts like

mindset and deep (or deliberate) practice and something in the brain called myelin.

Carol Dweck talks about the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”:

The fixed mindset believes that your levels of intelligence and talent are carved in stone.  They are fixed, unchanging quantities.
From an article in Forbes:

We either have a talent for something or we don’t. You have artistic ability or not; you have language skills or not; you are a great natural leader or not. There is nothing in between, nor is there the possibility for serious personal development and growth. Why put a lot of effort into learning something you’ll never be able to master anyway? Time and energy are better spent further honing your existing skills.

The dangers in thinking and behaving this way are as varied as they are predictable. It means success is all about showing how smart or talented you are. It’s all about validating yourself.

….On the other end of the spectrum is the growth mindset. If you have a full-on growth mindset, anything and everything is possible. If there is something you have an interest in yet don’t know how to do, you do whatever it takes to learn it. By stretching your comfort zone, you are able to continually develop yourself and define your own levels of success. With this mindset, even failure and criticism become opportunities to learn and grow.

People with a fixed mindset stay away from challenges, for fear of being exposed as not very talented or not very smart.  It’s all about taking the course that nets you the easy A.  You need to prove yourself over and over again.  You’re either somebody or you’re nobody; there’s nothing in between, and there’s no movement from one to the other.   Because people with a fixed mindset are so invested in protecting their ego, in being a ‘somebody’ or being ‘special’, it’s difficult for them to take charge of their own learning process.  If they don’t do well on a test, they blame the stupid teacher who never liked them anyway.  If their manuscript is rejected, they blame the stupid agent or the know-nothing editor or the soulless marketplace.

People with a growth mindset don’t think like this.  If they don’t do well on a test, it’s not the end of the world; they simply change their approach to studying.  If their manuscript is rejected, it’s not the end of the world; they simply send it out again, or revise it, or junk it and start something new, with the understanding that the more they write, collect feedback, and revise, the closer they move toward their goals.  It’s not a question of not being good enough…just of not being good enough yet.

Most of us are not fully one mindset or the other; we tend to be fixed in some areas and growth-oriented in others.  Carol Dweck trots out a number of real-life examples of CEOS and athletes who are fixed-mindset (Lee Iacocca, John McEnroe) and growth-mindset (Jack Welch, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods).

What quickly becomes apparent is the different approach the two mindsets take toward the idea of  practice.  If you have a fixed mindset, practice is irrelevant.  You shouldn’t have to work hard at anything; you either have ‘it’ or you don’t, and ‘it’ should come easily.  ‘It’ marks you out as different, special, better than the rest.

People with growth-mindset are all about the practice.  Athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are known not just for their performance but for their discipline, their love of practice, being the first one to arrive and the last one to leave.

And it turns out that practice is the key to becoming truly excellent at anything.  Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “ten thousand hours” rule – to become expert at something requires ten thousand hours, or about ten years, of practice – but turns out that’s only part of the story.

What truly accelerates your learning is something called deliberate practice or deep practice: committed, challenging, goal-oriented practice that pushes you to the edges of your ability and forces you to stumble, make mistakes, learn from them, go slowly, slowly, slowly.

Deep practice isn’t about breezing through a task…it’s about struggling.

In THE TALENT CODE Coyne lays out the reasons why.

See, there’s this thing called myelin.  As explained by Wisegeek:

Nerves are like an electrical wire. Current (the message) must be conducted along a path (the nerve) to successfully get from point A to point B (the brain to a fingertip). The electrical current must travel without being corrupted, scrambled, diverted from the proper path, or leaking energy….myelin is like the layer of plastic insulation surrounding an interior wire, which is the nerve….myelin speeds the conduction, so it’s also analogous to a secondary coating on the wire that reduces the resistance facing an electrical current. The interior wire represents the series of axons and nerve cells that relay the electrical impulse.

When you struggle, you’re forced to go slow, to pay deep attention to what you’re doing.  This causes your brain to literally alter its circuitry; myelin

responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.  The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become….

It’s universal; everyone can grow it.  It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical…” (from THE TALENT CODE, Daniel Coyne).

Myelin is the ultimate mental bandwidth.

Coyne points out that you can’t feel myelin growing.  But every time you struggle with a new skill, every time you push yourself,  you’re firing the right signals through the right neural channels.  Myelin adds itself to your neural circuitry…until one day the skill comes so “naturally” that it looks and seems effortless.  You are “talented”. But that “breakthrough” you experienced didn’t come out of nowhere.  It’s not a gift from the gods.  It’s akin to hammering a geode over and over, seeing no results, thinking you’re not getting anywhere….until you hammer it one more time and the geode breaks open and reveals the treasure of crystals inside.

In his book MASTERY:The Keys to Success & Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard talks about the importance of “learning to love the plateau.”  Learning, he points out, is not a steady climb from one skill to another.  It happens in spurts.  You breakthrough…then you plateau, and for a while you don’t seem to be getting anywhere…until you breakthrough again, and then you plateau, and for a while you don’t seem to be getting anywhere…until you breakthrough to a still higher level of ability and achievement.

Those breakthroughs seem like magic.  They can stun the people around you, who look at you and wonder, Where did that come from? I never would have predicted that she’d turn out so talented…

But talent isn’t just about what you can do well in that particular moment; it also seems wrapped up with drive, curiosity, and the urge to mastersomething, to “bleed for it”, to be so in love with the process that you’re willing to struggle and fail, struggle and fail, until one day you struggle – and succeed.  (And then start struggling again.)

Common wisdom has it that we’re passionate about the things we’re naturally good it, but it’s possible that it’s the other way around: we become “naturally” good at the things we’re truly passionate – and obsessive – about.

What ignites this kind of motivation is another question entirely.

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5 ways to use minor characters to add depth and complexity to your protagonist

1. You can use different characters to bring out aspects of the protagonist you want to emphasize to the reader.

Minor characters who have been involved with the protagonist for a long time are carriers of their own history with and memories of the protagonist. Minor characters can reference the past in handy ways that serve the development of the story. They can make observations about the protagonist’s character or predictions about her future.

Because minor characters are fully realized people in their own right, they have their own biases and inner conflicts that color their perceptions of the protagonist. As a result they’ll all have their own individual attitudes towards your central character, and how they act and what they say should reflect this. These differing perspectives can add depth and complexity to the protagonist and flesh out her life so that it seems to extend beyond the pages of the story.

2. You can use minor characters to represent exaggerated aspects of the protagonist’s own character.

Minor characters can serve as symbols of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that she must overcome in order to achieve the story’s goal.

Likewise, you can use minor characters in a way that represents the protagonist’s own potential – characters that the protagonist looks up to or wishes to emulate in some way.

3. You can use minor characters to benchmark the protagonist’s growth.

The protagonist starts out in her “ordinary world”. As she travels through the course of the story, he or she begins to change – but the ordinary world stays the same. The protagonist’s changing perspective on minor characters who populate the ordinary world can demonstrate how the protagonist herself is changing.

Minor characters can also represent the “new world” – or the changed state of being that the protagonist is moving toward. In this case it’s their changing attitudes toward the protagonist that reflects the protagonist’s growth. For example, they might initially resist the protagonist in some way, but then slowly or grudgingly come to accept her and perhaps even start to admire her.

4. You can use minor characters to represent different sides of a choice the protagonist must make.

The protagonist can be caught between different characters who embody opposing value systems. This is a way you can flesh out the theme or premise of your story: by showing whom the protagonist ends up aligning herself with (or against).

5. You can use minor characters as a ‘mirror’ of the protagonist.

A minor character can double the protagonist in some way: they start out in a similar situation, pursuing a similar fate….but then the minor character veers off in a different direction, usually negative, that serves to emphasize just what’s at stake for the protagonist or how she, too, could end up if she’s unable to overcome the challenges she must confront.

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the mysterious art that keeps your reader glued to every page

Few people know the ins and outs of fiction — and have a knack for explaining them — so well as uberagent Donald Maass. In his book “The Fire in Fiction” he dedicates a chapter to what he calls microtension.

A writer who masters the art of microtension keeps a reader glued to every page.

Not many writers, Maass points out, can actually do this.

Conflict is story, as every writer knows (and to those who say character is story, I say conflict reveals and deepens character and character drives conflict, so I’m not sure you can truly separate them). But what keeps a reader turning pages is often not the Big Conflict that informs the novel.

Think of the last action-packed thriller you read or saw onscreen that left you….bored during the middle act, when nothing much seemed to be happening, even if you were invested in the characters.

That would be the equivalent of a martial arts fighter who lands a powerful kick…so long as he has enough distance to do so. Get in close, though – take away his ability to throw kicks and punches – and he’s lost. He lacks what Harriet Rubin calls “micropower…the power to act in small tight dangerous spaces.”

For a fiction writer, micropower is the ability to keep the reader fascinated in the small tight spaces page by page, line by line….those dangerous spaces where the reader can lose interest and start to skim, or toss the book aside altogether.

Maass says microtension comes from this: emotions in conflict.

Dialogue becomes compelling when the two speakers are emotionally at odds with each other: perhaps one is dubious of the other’s argument. The reader reads on, wanting to know – needing to know – if, at the end of the conversation, the speakers will be reconciled.

Description and exposition become compelling when they’re framed within an emotional juxtaposition. The narrator reminisces about the idyllic summer when she was 12 and her family rented a cottage on the lake…except, from the start of the description, her tone is tense and apprehensive. The reader senses within the narrator an inner emotional conflict that undercuts the sweet nostalgia of what she is describing. The reader wants to know why that is…and reads on.

Maass puts forward this concept clearly and well, and I highly recommend both the chapter and the book. But it made me think of another book, Sally Hogshead’s FASCINATE: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation.

Through the masterful use of conflict (or microconflict) and microtension, writers pull the “fascination trigger” known as mystique.

Conflict is story because conflict raises questions. Put two different forces at odds with one another, and that raises questions about how the situation came to be…and how, or whether, it will be resolved. Thus, conflict generates mystery. Mystique. Which Hogshead describes as “revealing enough to pique curiosity, yet shadowy enough to prompt questions…provoking our imagination, hinting at the possibilities, inviting us to move closer while eluding our grasp. It doles out information without ever actually giving anything away.”

Hogshead points out that of the seven triggers, mystique “is the most nuanced and…most difficult to achieve” (which supports Maass’s statement that, in his experience, few writers do it right). Mystique is about sparking the reader’s curiosity, and then “doling out information” in a way that does not satiate that curiosity but “builds mystique around a message by gradually introducing new information and meaning, adding layers of mythology.” In the case of a novel, the “message” would be the story’s central conflict.

The novel’s microtensions are raised and resolved in a way that builds and deepens the story through the “layering” of all the little stories (microstories) of character and theme.

What do you think?

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