Someone asked why and how I distinguish between character and characterization. The why: because relying on appearance only as a tool creates two-dimensional characters. Complexity is in the contradictions, and the harmony between appearance and action. It’s in the interaction with other characters and environment. (yes, sometimes an appearance can be a both; such as when the action is choosing an appearance such as an external representation of character, cars, clothes, jobs, etc.)
Characteristic = appearance
Character = action, non-action, choice, objectives, morality
Character Study from the Dory:
“Bob” is a regular to breakfast two to three times a week. He’s mid-late eighties, with hearing aids, a green velveteen track suit, and wears Polo cologne (and by wears, I mean, bathes in it). He has a plaid cap, and orthopedic black shoes, and sits at the same table every time, unless it’s occupied, in which case he sits at his backup table.
He lays out two napkins, one for the English muffin “extra crispy” that he’ll order, and one for the pills he needs to take, and a place to rest his knife. He then sorts through the jelly holders, looking for orange marmalade. If his table is out, he’ll walk to each table, dipping through the jelly holders until he can find three orange marmalades and returns them to his spare napkin at the corner table. (If I have time, I try to restock his favorite table with extra marmalades)
I usually have coffee to him before he sits to prevent him from yelling out across the room. Since he’s partially deaf, he yells loud enough to wake the dead, even when you’re a foot away.
Me: (setting down coffee, a spare napkin so the coffee spoon doesn’t touch the table or he’ll glare, and a water for his pills or he’ll yell across the room for it. It all has to come out at the same time, even if my hands are full, or he’ll think I forgot something and holler for it.) Good morning, Bob. Do you want a Denver omelet with no cheese, and a side of salsa today? English muffin extra crispy? (My eyes water from the cologne. I try to hold my breath to wait for his very loud reply.)
Bob: I WANT A DENVER OMELETTE. NO CHEESE. DON’T YOU DARE PUT CHEESE ON MY OMLETTE. AND I WANT AN ENGLISH MUFFIN THAT’S EXTRA CRISPY. AND I NEED SOME SALSA, TOO. DON’T COME BACK WITHOUT MY SALSA.
Me: Okydokie, will do.
It’s taken months for us to get this far in our server/patron dynamic. The early days included a lot of loud yelling from across the room as he ordered things he thought of, or that I forgot. He consistently yells with his mouth full, which often leads to food spraying or coughing fits. I wait until he’s settled in before I return to refill his coffee and keep his water full.
It took several visits for me to realize he yells because he can’t hear himself. Several more visits for me to really appreciate he’s one of the patrons who consistently says “thank you” and tries to look at me when he’s talking. Many patrons order breakfast while looking at their phones, or flinch slightly when come by to fill their coffee, as though I’m imposing on their far away thoughts.
“Bob” always looks up. He always says thank you. He spreads his food out on napkins to keep the breakfast parts from touching. If other regulars are in, he makes time to speak with them and catch up, loudly, so the whole restaurant knows everything he’s saying—there are no secrets when Bob is in the building.
Me: (dropping off his ticket) Do you want a to-go cup for your coffee?
Bob: LISTEN, I’M GONNA NEED A TO GO CUP FOR MY COFFEE. BRING ME A CUP WITH A LID I CAN TAKE.
Me: Sure thing.
Bob: THAT’S GOOD. THANK YOU.
I put extra coffee in his to-go, and make sure I bring an extra spoon, in case I bussed his table while he was talking to other regulars. He’ll add half a dispenser of sugar to the cup, and pay his ticket.
If he’s still at his table when I return the change, he always grabs my arm.
Bob: HERE, HON. THIS IS FOR YOU. YOU TAKE THIS OKAY. ITS FOR YOU.
Me: Thanks, I really appreciate that.
I accept my tip while I’m standing next to him, or he’ll yell from across the room that I need to come get it so he can hand it to me personally. Usually two dollars. The only time he’ll leave it and go is if I have several table or look busy.
When he leaves he always says goodbye, waves and yells, “YOU HAVE A GOOD DAY, NOW.”
Me: You, too, Bob. Thank you!
Breaking down the contradiction in character expectations, a man who yells, is not always angry. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d know if Bob were ever truly angry unless he said so. I can pick up micro gestures in his eyes ticks when he’s irritated (his English muffin touched his salsa), or annoyed (out of marmalade), but because he speaks at the same decibel for all things, I would have no idea if we were raising his voice.
Despite his penchant for yelling with his mouth full, is in in fact, one of my most mannerly patrons. He says, thank you. He often picks up the tab for the elderly woman who dines as a regular at the same time. He makes time to visit with locals. He always tips, and always says goodbye. He tries to engage with me, I assume, to humanize our interaction, despite the oddities—which I can say is one of the nicest things about him. He makes an effort to humanize.
Outside Scope: When I watch other patrons, usually non-locals who are dining at the same time as Bob. I watch them trying to puzzle him out. Some people are offended when he yells to me across the room “MORE COFFEE” or “YOU FORGOT MY WATER”. I can tell they’re worried for me, or think he’s being rude.
Maybe he is, but I don’t think of it that way.
Servers can’t afford to take a whole lot personally. At least once or twice a shift you’re going to get someone that rubs you wrong—it’s the craps table of service. Sure, you get one that tips you over the edge once in a while, but the truth is, I do the same to some of them from time to time.
It all balances out in the wash.
A hermit interacting with humans is a tricky business on the best of days. So no, I don’t take Bob personal, he’s just a man. He just wants food and a place to feel safe so he can enjoy a meal and see his friends. And I’ve come to really adore him over the last few months. I adore his strange brand of humor, his need to sperate all his food, to put his coffee at two o’clock on the table and his pills and water at 10.
I’ve mastered the habit of holding my breath from the choking Polo burn on day’s he’s freshly shaved. And remembering to carrying everything out in one trip to avoid Bob disturbing other diners.
In the grand scheme of character study, it’s not entirely fair to study a character without noting the impact they have on me as well. While I use this job as a position to study humans, nothing happens in a vacuum. At least a portion of Bob’s characteristics are a direct result of my interaction with him, and judging it without accounting for that leaves part of the story untold.
At any rate, this is just a glimpse into the world of some of the story and character studies I work on while I’m at the diner.
I am inspired by music much the same way background music in a movie or TV show cues you to feel a certain way. When you hear gentle, sentimental music you’re being prepped for an emotional scene. Likewise, if you hear upbeat, exciting music chances are you’re watching an action scene and you’re heart is racing. The better and more accurate the music, the more impact it has. That’s why producers pay big bucks to get big name artists to make memorable music for their scenes. If nothing else, they may pay big bucks to use an existing, highly recognized song for a trailer or other promotional purposes.
Sometimes it works the other way around. Rather than add to a scene, a song or music will create a scene out of thin air (well, in a person’s mind). Who hasn’t had psychedelic images roaming through their head when listening to a Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd song? While working at my laptop, iTunes playing in the background, my playlist will fabricate all kinds of movie scenes against the projector screen of my brain. “Ooh, that music would be EPIC for a cavalry charge,” I’d think to myself, for example.
Such was the case when listening to a mournful ballad called “Spanish Doll” by the artist Poe (who is more known for the song “Hey Pretty”). The lyrics and the haunting tune evoke images of sadness, suffering and longing. A desperate desire to reunite and make amends:
“A stranger in this world without you is all that I can ever be,
All I know that is pure and clear,
You left with me here,
In this souvenir
The context of the song easily could be taken for a lover mourning the loss of a relationship. A little research, however, shows that the entire album from which “Spanish Doll” comes from is an ode to the singer’s deceased father and unresolved feelings. A state that has left her feeling like a worn child’s toy.
Every piece of art, however, is seen from a different perspective by different people. From my vantage, the movie projector in my head was telling a different story. A story of a father missing his deceased daughter. A father with his own unresolved issues which come to head when he comes across a music-playing doll in an antique shop (the same music that inspired the story from the get-go). Add my penchant for the supernatural, add a dash of hope and…voila!…you have Adam Copeland’s bittersweet version of “Spanish Doll.”
Here is the inspiring song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS4Be92cFl4 and the resulting story: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/268853-spanish-doll
Enjoy them both.
Writing is about communication. Communication is about expression…and entertainment. Even when communication is merely about the transfer of information it is still about entertainment. Human beings are complex and deep thinking creatures who need to be intellectually stimulated. That is why as a writer you should use various techniques throughout your work to stimulate the mind. You should add seasoning to your dishes to give them flavor. One of these techniques is to add a little mystery to your creation. Because as a species, we love mysteries, riddles, crossword puzzles and episodes of “Lost”. The only thing we love more than solving mysteries is finding mysteries to solve.
So how do you add a little mystery to your story that is not a mystery? How do you add a little drama to your story that is not a drama? You use foreshadowing.
A shadow precedes you and announces your arrival. Similarly, the literary device of foreshadowing announces events before they happen. Sometimes right away, sometimes much later in the story. It drops hints of things to come. It is in effect teasing the reader. Why tease your readers? Because they want to fulfill that human need for stimulation. They want to solve the mystery, and to solve a mystery you need clues. That is what foreshadowing provides: Clues. Every bit of information an episode of foreshadowing provides brings them closer to finding the answer. They want to test their intellectual prowess and arrive at the answer before others do. As a writer, you want to keep the reader hooked and coming back for more, or better yet, not able to put your writing down in the first place.
Foreshadowing can come as a statement made by a character, it can be imagery, or it can be an entire scene that portends things to come.
Though everybody may like to have their curiosity piqued by a mystery, not everybody likes to be brutally teased. To use food seasoning again as analogy, not everyone likes the same amount of spice on their food. Too much foreshadowing may leave your story vague, ambiguous, and cluttered with seemingly meaningless information that only serves to confuse. Too little and you may as well be reading the back of a carton of milk for entertainment.
Therefore, there is a range involving the different types of foreshadowing that can be either explicit or implicit, direct or subtle. There is a form of foreshadowing that appeals to all palates.
Shakespeare was excellent at using foreshadowing that was straightforward, but nonetheless engaging. The title character in Macbeth states, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” which is not very subtle, but we are still quoting that line to this day. Entire books and movies have been titled after it. Similarly, in Julius Caesar the soothsayer tells Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” Again, not very subtle, but memorable. Direct foreshadowing like this can be made even more interesting by wrapping it in layers of poetry. In The Old Testament the prophet Nathan plainly declares to King David, “Because you have sinned and have offended the Lord your God, the sword shall never leave your house.” Nathan straightforward tells David that from now on you will have a whole lot of family problems, but uses poetic imagery to do so.
To get the most out of foreshadowing, however, one should employ the full power of mystery. When a scene is subtle enough that it leaves you scratching your head, but then gives you that “ah-ha” or “light bulb” moment later on…that is magic. The Bible has plenty of these moments as well. After scourging Jesus, the centurions go to mock him by wrapping him in a purple robe and crowning him with thorns. Little do they know they are foreshadowing the eventual crowning glory of Jesus.
Take foreshadowing even deeper and the imagery and prophetic utterances become open to interpretation and even debate…which is itself entertaining. Well, stimulating in any case. The Book of Revelation is an entire work of foreshadowing that boggles the mind. In the Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is impaled on a stick which subsequently becomes covered with flies, leaving to discussion just what is implied. The very title of that literary classic foreshadows what lies within its pages.
There is no question you should add flavor to your writing. If you want to entertain, stimulate, or just plain tease your readers, spice your creation with foreshadowing. The only question is: How spicy do you like it?
The Sacred Boundary
Of all the tools in the artist’s toolbox, this may be one of the most important. The price is steep, requiring selfishness, and sacrifice, but the payout is the contract you make with yourself as a creator to own your creative space. Creative space is not just a place to work, but a time, a reserved energy, and a willingness to cut off connections (temporarily) from anything draining your juice. Yes, this includes Facebook. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The sacred boundary is what protects you and your work from energetic drain and infringement. It’s the time, space, respect you pay to you and your own efforts. It’s the ticket price of entering the show.
The frustrated artists who come to my workshops say, “I could do more writing/ painting/art if only I had: fill in the blank.”
A workspace; spare time; a job that didn’t drain the life out of me; a room with a locking door; two hours away from my kids a week; a husband who could cook his own dinner; thirty minutes in the morning; a shorter commute to my day job; money.
Often when money is used as an answer to what stops someone from being creative, it’s because they can’t see a solution to the other needs and believe money is the solution. Sometimes it is, but most of the time the answer is within grasp, just unwilling to commit.
Often times, in fact most times, the answer is the difficult task of saying “no” to other people and their needs. Yep. That’s the ticket price. No.
It’s hard. I won’t lie. The day you tell your family “I’m not coming to Thanksgiving anymore because it falls during Nanowrimo, the only month of the year when I’m at peak productivity.” Bitter feelings and fights may occur. It may even break down the paradigm of how some family dynamics work, and you’ll have to be okay with that.
I even offered solutions to have them come to me so I wouldn’t lose three days of travel and productivity, I could stay home, write and cook and still make my deadline and see the family unit. There are solutions if you look for them. I staked the edges of the boundary, and held the ground. Am I saying my work is more important to me than my family is? A passive aggressive person might say yes, they might say I need to sacrifice every holiday, event, spare moment to be with my family – but there are many times throughout the year other concessions may be made for family time. And there are ways within November that my family and I can participate if the effort is made from both sides. I’m a pretty good cook, and happy to host.
The point of Sacred Boundary is you are choosing a side, and in that choosing, you are also saying to those people on the other side whom you’ve used as your excuse not to be productive:
“I’m not using you as my excuse to be creatively frustrated anymore.”
That seems harsh. It won’t make you popular. But isn’t that essentially what you’ve been doing? Putting off your creative work… and secretly blaming them for your failure to complete a novel, painting, poem, etc.?
You don’t have to feel like a failure if someone else stopped you from being your truest most creative self, right? It’s not your fault then, right?
Stop blaming them for your failure to commit to your work. It might be hard up front, they may take it personal, just like they’d take it personal if you told them the reason you’re unhappy is because you use them to block yourself. But sacred boundary requires the effort—and in doing so, you’ll see eventual adjustments occur. New dynamics will emerge, possibly even healthier ones, and they will begin to make efforts on their side to respect the sacred space. **Or, they will remove themselves from you completely (more on this later).
When you as an artist say, “This closet needs all the Christmas stuff moved to the garage or a storage unit, it’s going to be my new workspace.” Or “Don’t interrupt me between 7AM and 8AM unless you’re bleeding and need stitches.” Or “On Tuesday and Thursday nights, honey, you’re going to cook your own dinner or order takeout while I get caught up on my chapters.”
Only then, when you stake the claim on your space and energy will the investment in your efforts begin to materialize.
When you say, “I’m going to dump this toxic job, and pick up a lower paying, less frustrating gig so I can focus on my real work.” You may need to save up, or cut your budget, but the outcome is an investment in your total value as a creative.
The key to sacred boundary once you’ve staked your claim and placed your securities: USE IT.
Don’t sit in your space worrying what your kids are doing for an hour. Don’t stare at a blank screen and chew your lip because your husband ordered delivery pizza for the eighth time in a month. I swear to you, if he’s grown enough to place an order, he’s grown enough to make nutritional choices of his own. Let it be. Focus on your work.
The point is to generate a pocket of time, energy, space, and do the most you can with it. Only then will you know what you’re truly capable of, and how much you’ve left at the feet of others during your times of frustration.
**It’s hard to reconcile those who remove themselves from your sacred boundary or life with bitterness. It does happen, and it’s a risk you should be aware of up front. Staking a claim on your path to being a creative means you will inevitably push some people and events away.
Very few people in the world have more of a vested interest in your success than you do, and there are many who will be angry, cruel, or dismissive of your efforts to commit to yourself and your craft.
Julia Cameron has a great term for them in her work, The Artists Way. She calls them crazymakers.
I call them energy vampires or creative vampires. They are the ones who enjoy being around your energy, your creative expressions, your output, but the moment your work, efforts, energy isn’t directed toward their benefit or needs they can become outwardly manipulative and unkind.
Once you stop feeding them, they may decide to move along. It’ll be up to you to decide how much you need those relationships in your life. After years of struggling to own my creative power, I’ve become merciless in recognizing these characters and cutting them loose before they can cause damage. And if I’m unable to cut them loose, I walk away from them completely, even if it hurts.
There are those who would argue that staking a claim and owning space is just as selfish as the energy vampire who’s feeding on you. Who is more selfish?
I would like to point out that we are all selfish. Not a human among us is without the tendency to survive, or need, or want. The difference in owning space for your work, and someone being entitled to your efforts or energy.
A note on selfishness: “selfish” is a grossly overused term in our society. We are conditioned to be “selfless”, women especially, self-sacrificing, nurturing, tend to the needs of others first. It’s become a slander to personal and societal values to want something for yourself. To need for yourself.
There is no glory in false martyrdom. If sacrificing your creative fulfillment for the happiness of others who are completely capable of being self-realized themselves is part of your plan, so be it. But the odds are pretty good, that a closet workspace, a few order-in meals a month, and an hour of reserved time each day to yourself isn’t going to upset the balance of the Universe.
At the end of the day there are people in your life who have legitimate needs and claims on your energy; partners, children, lovers, family, and so on. It’s up to you to find the balance in those claims, and the courage to take what you need as well in a way that’s healthy for you. It will ultimately be healthy for them as well, even if it’s a struggle in the beginning. Relationship is a continuous improvement project, but it takes all parties to participate.
That commitment is what signals the gears, the imagination, to know it’s safe to grant the ideas and the manifestation of art into form. Once you make the sacred boundary contract…let the creativity begin.
The Method and the Channel
So, you’ve been filling up your warehouse, stocking sensory data, experiences, life and so forth.
As you fill up your warehouse, ideas will come. It’s up to you then to make sure those ideas start getting processed. Here’s just a glimpse of my average order for the creation phase of a project.
The Method is about the mechanics of the project, whereas the channel is a more difficult and non-tangible concept. However, the channel and the method are interdependent on one another.
Channel is almost always happening to a creative who’s prolific and open. While there’s not a scientific way to explain this intangible piece, I believe in it for my own creative output. I think of it as the pipeline between my creative warehouse and my fingers on the keyboard. Keeping this channel clear, fresh, and available is part of the active and ongoing practice of being a creative.
Depending on your belief system one might describe this channel as the connection between local and non-local self. However you refer to it, the viability and constant accessibility to the information stored in your warehouse is dependent on your relationship with the channel, and the strength of your connection to your creative potentiality. When an artist freezes up, burns out, or gets blocked, it’s almost always related to this particular connection point. The channel.
Method: The method will depend on your medium; paint, music, mathematics, etc. For this article, I’ll focus on writing.
My writing method is: idea, to concept, to draft, to beta, to revisions, to publication.
Idea comes into the channel. I puzzle over it, go for a drive, or sit in the bathtub with wine and think about the idea. What does it need? Is it ready to be worked – yes, go to concept, no-put it back in the warehouse to percolate.
Idea: romantic comedy
Setting: steampunk alternative wild west
Conflict: Bad guy interrupting trade routes of precious commodities
Character 1: Trader
Character 2: Hired muscle
Character 3: Archetype 3
Theme: Love conquers trade routes, and general prejudice….
Concept: Concept is when I do a mockup arc, a plot or story board, choose a template (generally the 3-act structure, but sometimes 6-act structure), pencil a broad arc point within the structure to see what it will look like.
Aside: The 3-act structure of a comedic romance is standardized thanks to Shakespeare,
(Boy meets girl – boy gets girl then boy loses girl – boy gets girl back.)
If this is the template I choose, I might set my idea into this template, then modify it to fit the story needs. A template is just that, mix and match and muddle to your artist’s heart contentment.
Girl meets girl (how) – girl gets girl (how/why) – girl loses girl (why)- girl gets girl back (how/why) and they decide to have an open relationship (because).
To create further interesting detail, pick a layout template.
simple order = chain of collapsing events
bookends = begin with the ending, and work back into the story
scrambled = out of order events (example: Memento)
The possibilities are endless. Also during this concept phase you’re choosing the POV, and the tense.
Final concept: Third person, present tense, comedic lesbian love story, bookend layout of 3-act structure.
- World building requirement: Advanced
- Character building requirement: Moderate
If I get to the end of a concept and I realize I don’t have enough in my warehouse for this project, or time, or energy, I’ll bundle it and shelve it for later. If I’ve concepted and don’t feel like it has enough potential to be interesting, I’ll put it back in the warehouse to percolate.
If, however, my energy and curiosity are piqued, I’ll start drafting.
Draft: Drafting is when the writing begins. This is where channeling really happens. Channeling the inspirations, ideas, sensory data, and more from your warehouse into your work. You’re opening the pipeline from your writing desk to your warehouse and letting the stored data pour through.
Some writers describe it as someone else writing a book using their hands. Other say it’s like grabbing onto a lightning rod in a thunderstorm. It’s been both ways for me.
When a frustrated writer sits down to work and that channel doesn’t open, they say they have writer’s block or the idea is bad. Since I don’t believe in writer’s block, I tell them, go back to the warehouse. Go back to nurturing the connection you have with that space of imagination and possibility. Do something else for a while to take pressure off the valve – then try again later.
Drafting is opening the valve, and letting creative energy course through the channel. It’s the world building, character articulation, conflict manipulation, and a LOT of winging it.
There’s a great debate amongst Nanowrimo participants nearly every year on the boards. “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
- A plotter lays out the whole story in detail through outlines and storyboards before beginning.
- A pantser flys by the seat of their pants.
There’s no right or wrong way. I tend to use one or the other depending on my mood or level of interest in a project. Usually, I split the difference between the two. While I hammer out the who, where, and why in concept—I generally don’t focus on the details, minutia, hooks, or leads during concept phase so that I can be pleasantly surprised and curios as my characters and events unfold.
Before I start a large project, such as a series or set of interconnected articles, I’ll plan out the big points and map the important revelations so I know where I’m driving the story from chapter to chapter. All of which would happen in concepting.
It just depends on the project.
Once the draft writing begins, problems will surface, issues in the concept will reveal themselves and I’ll have to work around or through them, or go back to the story board and start again. It might take a couple of drafts before I’m ready to beta.
Beta: Beta is the testing phase. How does it read to a fresh set of eyes? What story problems surface? What wasn’t connected in the text from my brain? Did I hit the targets for emotional resonance? World building? Did I make relatable dimensional characters?
Being able to accept critical feedback from a beta reader is important to getting you closer to your story and writing goals.
My caveat to that statement is: you need really reliable, well-tuned beta readers AND you need to know your story and your intentions well enough to know WHEN and WHAT to accept or disregard from the beta feedback. Beta involves a lot of judgement calls, and personal preferences.
For example: If I netted a beta reader for my lesbian comedic romance set in alternative steampunk wild west, and my beta reader is either homophobic, or only tends to read space opera – it’s likely much of the critical feedback will be skewed per their personal tastes, preferences, or bias. It’s a bummer to say it, but the most consistent negative feedback against story beta comes from subconscious prejudice.
This is why it’s especially important to have a beta reader who is story-versed, articulate, and able to separate their personal feelings from the feedback of a story or writing evaluation.
A good beta reader is priceless. The best beta readers are usually part of a writer or reader group that meets consistently, and works regularly to keep their skills sharp.
I like to have both a beta reader who is story versed, and beta readers who are not story-versed.
This is because the story-versed trained reader will grab writing details, inconsistencies, structural faults, and so on. But the readers who allow their own personal interests to impact the story will give details to where the trigger points are, and what lured them in or pushed them out of the story. This is important, because they’re reading the story as a reader would, as a person feeling and relating or not relating to what you’ve written. Their feedback is just as important as the story-versed reader.
Being able to breakdown unrefined beta feedback into helpful data can take a thick skin and a solid trust in your writing and process.
For example: “I’m getting bored.” “Started skipping ahead.” “I put the book down here.” “This part is kind of stupid.”
To some writers this can be hard feedback to receive. I love it! I love these pieces of feedback because they’re telling me something I couldn’t have seen on my own. These are beta indicators that the pacing, tension, and resonance of the story aren’t working for this reader. That doesn’t mean it’s broken, it means that point in the manuscript is in need of attention. If you make it through a revision and still can’t find the problem, compare the rest of the feedback from that reader to find the points that line up, and target the trends in their language.
Revisions: are based on beta feedback and notes I’ve been making while the manuscript was in the hands of test readers. Notes on issues I have suspicions about, but want to know if they’ll pop on the radar after beta.
I might note: I feel like character X is too agreeable to all the points that would have incited interesting tension. Missed opportunity to ratchet up conflict.
Then as I go through the beta notes, if that comment or something like it surfaces: bingo. Make the changes.
The true value of having beta readers cannot adequately be expressed. It’s fair to say about half of what a beta reader notes, I disregard out of hand. Another quarter I ponder and disregard. But the final twenty-five percent-ish that they note or comment on…almost always would have slipped under my radar, or had passed by my brain completely and it made all the difference in the revision process for making a story into a novel. Those choice observations from readers can make or break the story quality.
Publication: Publication is a rabbit hole of editing, polishing, and running the project management gauntlet of timelines, independent contractors, and marketing. As an indie, I do most or all of it myself. What I can’t do by myself, I hire out for, but it can be expensive and slow. This separate process deserves its own post.
Still, to get the idea from the warehouse to the bookshelf, it’s worth it.
So there we have it, my method and channel process tools from the toolbox. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone. It doesn’t mean I’ll stick to it the same every time. It currently works for me, so I use it, and when it stops working, I’ll revise.
Next in the toolbox: The Sacred Boundary
Each of my creative outlets draw from a central source, a creative pool of stimuli, experiences, curiosity, and research. Julia Cameron calls it the “artists’ well”; a term I used for a long time because it fit, but eventually it became more of a warehouse, a continuously stocked library of information I could rely on, become inspired by, have my interest or curiosity piqued, or a lexicon of sensory and emotional language and resonant anchors.
Formally trained actors and performers call this the “actor’s toolbox”. Isn’t it interesting that the language crossovers are not dissimilar from one craft to the next? This is because so many creative crafts are tied together through this central place of human experience, the story of humanity that we share and explore through creative outlets are all intimately rooted in having experienced something, whether positive, negative, or other–then transformed that experience into an artform, an output, an equation or a scientific explanation. What we learn through this tool, becomes the output in our theater performance, music, theorem, child rearing, community building, and consistently evolving cultural evolution.
Because my warehouse is fundamental to all my creative crafts and forms; writing, storytelling, photography, sculpting, and so on…it’s the tool I focus on the most, and the place I always return to when I’m stuck.
How do I prepare my warehouse and keep it stocked?
This requires continuous upkeep and maintenance. It’s harder at first, when you’re getting the hang of it, but over time, it becomes habit and it happens naturally. Information goes in, and is cataloged and stored for later.
I keep several folders and notebooks of questions I need answers to, things I’m curious about, adventures I’d like to have, places I’d like to go, people I’d love to meet and so on. I call these drivers. Piqued my curiosity? Drop it in the drivers bucket in the warehouse—I guarantee it will come up later, or I’ll stumble into a situation that allows me to experience the answer. Someone hands me a book on a topic I was thinking about, a friend posts link on my wall, a piece of information connects while watching a random movie, or I have time to spare and can surf the Wikipedia wonders of interconnected topics.
Drivers are my key to staying in fresh energy of information and experiences. This has led me to a personal understanding that to be a diverse artist, I need to live an interesting life. If I’m going to tell stories about adventures, I need to live adventures. If I’m going to tell stories about love, I need to live love, and have it in my warehouse of experiences to draw upon.
Creation is never stagnant. Stagnation is death to any living thing. Movement, kinetic energy, growth are all fundamental to evolution; art, stories and inspiration are all part of that evolutionary process. Drivers are really about movement. Tidbits that urge me down the next rabbit hole, or send me off the path of an uncharted discovery all begin with the investigative potential sparked by drivers.
Image & Sensory Files (A Lexicon)
Visualization is a powerful technique. I used to keep folders and drawers of photography, clippings and images that sparked my imagination. Now I have the wonder of Pinterest that allows me to surf, snag and pin unlimited delightful imagery and sensory inspirations to my heart’s content. Pins boards galore house the bulk of my imagery inspirations, and even many boards on my Drivers.
But storing the information on a cloud server isn’t enough. Sensory data demands experience. When I’m needing more sensory data for my Warehouse, I go to the fabric store, and touch EVERYTHING. I wander through craft markets, bazaars, and farmer’s markets. I walk through the forest and catalog the scents. I go to new restaurants and taste dishes I think sound interesting, odd, or delightful. I smell things.
I am often overheard asking, “Hey Liz, can I sniff your muffins?” No joke. But how else to catalog that amazing fresh-baked blueberry muffin scent?
I sniff things. I touch a lot. I put an enormous amount of food and drink in my mouth. I wear unusual textiles. Stare at pretty things, ugly things, confusing things…and make notes. I take a lot of pictures for reference on light, shadow, and drape. I lose time whilst running my fingers over strange surfaces, or rolling a new flavor around my palate.
Idiosyncrasies. The word used to describe artist types with odd or out of normal tendencies. But what most folks don’t know is that those artists are cataloging life, tastes, experiences, and so on—for use later, whether they’re aware of it consciously or not. Sure, some of us are just plain weird, and that’s cool, too. But when you see me glaze over after taking a bite of something amazing, it’s probable I’m cataloging a reference point to come back to the experience ten years down the road, while writing a story.
The Yes Factor
When I went through theatre training at the Portland Actor’s Conservatory, the most profound tool they taught me was yes. I was already doing it in my real life, and in storytelling—but I didn’t know it also applied to performance. What else is living and storytelling, but performance, really.
Anyway, the yes in theater performance is the willingness to try, experiment, interact with—and ACT. Yes, is always an action, even if that action is inaction.
In this section of my yes factor in the Warehouse is an aisle called, “Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Walking down this aisle you’d think I have a master’s degree in failure. It’s like a screw-up’s hall of fame. It’s littered with plaques and trophies with labels such as, “Unemployable”, “You’re fired!”, “I quit”, “We need a divorce”, “bankruptcy”, “default”, and so on. I could list a half dozen more, but I’m sure you get the gist.
Other boxes and files on this aisle of the warehouse are labeled, “That was a close one” “Woohooo!” “Your book is done”, “Here are the keys to your house”.
Why would I call this section the Yes Factor?
Because as a human, an artist, I had to say yes to every one of the situations that led me through these events. Some I caused myself, others I had a hand in, and some had nothing to do with me except that I was in the wrong or right place, at the wrong or right time. They were all events that I participated in, even if only by association.
But I had to be open to the experience on some level, and learning from it. Yes is a door to information—it’s not always the information you want or ask for, but part of the yes journey is accepting that truth in any form. Part of the yes is saying, “I’m taking all the experience, even the painful, even the ugly, and especially the difficult. And if the experience is lovely, mind-blowing, or glorious—I’m grateful to have it. Then I’m going to store, catalog, and learn from said experiences so I can use it for my work.”
Yes also leads to some pretty phenomenal things, right? It’s not always failure. Yes, can be a lifelong relationship. It can be a relationship that last a month, but still provides one of the best experiences in your lifetime. Yes can be a side trip down the scenic route. Yes can be the choice to book those tickets to Venice, or smile at the cute guy at the coffee shop.
Yes is simply the willingness to try. It’s the willingness to step beyond a definition, to cross a threshold.
In storytelling terms, Yes is answering the call to adventure. It’s the agreement to transitions your story on one particular subject to act two.
Yes, is the contract you make with your life to engage. To challenge your fear, to accept change, to move toward your own climax or destination.
The results of my yes factor are stored in my warehouse. A lovely benefit to this willingness to engage, is that I’m never without a shortage of stories to tell, weird careers to call upon, interesting facts to reference, and pleasant encounters to reminisce upon.
Putting it all together.
Having a fully stocked and organized warehouse is my most effective tool. It’s all-encompassing. It’s the data storage of life and living, dreams and aspirations, desires and fears. It’s the record center of success and failure, imagination, and curiosities.
Some people’s warehouses might look like a circus emporium; other’s a Fort Knox of ideas.
Mine’s a bit of a menagerie, fantasy creatures and stories that never happened mixed with true events no one would ever believe. I satisfy my storytelling by expressing all of it, and leaving the reality up to the imaginations of others. It’s not unlike an episode of Warehouse 13, actually. Sometimes I have no idea what’s going to get pulled out of storage while I’m in there looking for something else. Often hilarity ensues.
The point of the warehouse is to have wealth of information and inspiration to draw upon. When people ask me where I get my ideas or inspiration, I answer, “the warehouse”. Other artists might say, “from life”, or “I get my ideas from everything around me or in the world”.
It’s hard not to sigh when someone asks me where my ideas come from, because once you’ve habitualized living as an art form…you’re never out of ideas. You’re never short on concepts, never dry of plans, never empty of direction or desire, never not hungry for more experience and input.
And once you’ve reached a point of living like you’re constantly devouring the world data around you, building and creating, and manifesting from that state perpetually; then when someone asks where your ideas come from it’s hard not to say, “Pay attention, man! They’re everywhere. They’re lying on the sidewalk like glittering coins, and dripping from the trees.”
Taking the time to explain the answer to someone who is willfully blind to the inspiration around them is exhausting. It’s often draining and unfruitful.
If you have to ask where ideas come from, you’re announcing willful blindness, and asking someone to tell you how to see a world in color. You’re announcing a lack of general curiosity about the complex and wondrous diversity of life. By saying you’re out of ideas, you’re saying, “I’m indifferent to the magic in my immediate environment. I don’t understand gratitude. I don’t know how to recognize the gift of learning from drawing breath.”
Being in that state is not a bad thing if it works. For most people it doesn’t work. For most people they need “something more” and they don’t know what that is. They’re secretly bored, directionless, and depressed, so they go looking for someone to tell them how to get ideas. Their creative world has stagnated, and stagnation breeds a slow death.
There is an answer, there is a cure. There is a way to invigorate your creative center, to breathe life back into your day-to-day. There’s a way to turn your boredom into a rocket forge of creative potential with more ideas than you can manifest in a lifetime. There’s a way to charge your relationships, build your skills, and bring dimensionality back to your world.
But it begins with a willingness to see, to hear, to be affected. It begins with a deal you make with yourself to take the journey, even if you don’t know where the destination is, or who’s going with you. It begins with risk, with a yes, with a notebook and a desire to know, feel, witness, and learn.
And when you accept the call to adventure and you cross that threshold into act two of your creative story—you’ll be opening yourself up to information to catalog, store, and use for later. And you will, because once you take the risk, and truly open up to the wealth of creative energy around you, the movement will become a forward direction away from stagnation, and you won’t be able to hold back all the ideas.
For the next chapter on process and tools, Click to: The Method and the Channel
What’s Your Creative Process?
This question comes up at nearly every Q&A, and I always find it interesting because the funny thing about a “process” for artists and creatives is that its’ different for everyone. The truth about creative process is that every productive, prolific creator has one, even if they’re not aware of it. And every non-productive, frustrated creative, does not have one. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
The frustrated creative always asks, “What’s your process?” but what they’re really asking without knowing it is, “How do I make my creativity work for me, rather than the other way around?”
If you swap the word “process” for the phrase “key to productivity” it’s a completely different answer, an answer that yields much more in the way of helpful direction to a frustrated artist.
I’m a huge fan of process, but with this stipulation; use what works, discard the rest. The moment your process breaks down, needs reconfigured, or can be improved – refine your process, or dump it and get a new one. A creative cannot afford to have a faulty or non-productive creative pipeline.
Process is a tool. That’s all it is. When new writers ask me about my process, they’re really asking about my tool box.
What’s in my toolbox?
- The Warehouse: a storage space for experiences, interests, thought trains, image files (“artists well”), skills, practiced craft, curiosities, and failures. Yes, failures, your most valuable tool in the warehouse.
- The Method: choice of medium(s), collection of craft, and technique to apply to your channel
- The Channel: the opening from your warehouse through your method, into your medium. This is where you sit down and work, build, create.
- The Sacred Boundary: the time and space you set aside to do your work. This time and space is protected, from intrusion and judgement.
Different schools of thought and ways of practicing craft will inform new tools and processes. They are not limited, nor should they be. Having access to lots of methods and practices allows you to build what will ultimately work best for you individually.
Process should never own your productivity. Productivity is supported by process, not caged by it. I think this is where people/creatives tend to break out in hives at the thought of process, order or structure. They think of it like a dungeon, a place where new ideas go to die.
When in fact process is the means by which your idea comes to fruition. It’s the network of strengths, methods, and practices put into place to allow your idea to emerge into reality.
It’s counter-productive to imagine process as the bad guy, that’s like shooting the messenger because you’re afraid they’ll deliver news, any news.
“But, Athena, process kills creativity! It limits ideas!” Alas. Not true. Process only weeds out, the ideas that won’t survive the birthing pains. If your process killed an idea, think of it as culling the garden so other more valuable ideas have more opportunity for sunlight, water, and cultivation. Without this failsafe, you could fall into a perpetual creative energy expenditure and never see the end goal realized. Bitter frustration ensues.
The misconception that process kills ideas comes from a crossover of terms:
Creativity, and productive creativity.
Creativity is the space where anything is possible. It’s cart blanche. It’s the amniotic fluid wherein all outcomes are imaginable, all resolutions achievable, and all interests matter. It’s the think tank, the brainstorm, the ether of imagination. Creativity is the idea buffet table.
Productive creativity (process) us the space where the ether of imagination meets the physics of planet Earth, and let’s be honest, also the pocketbook.
Productive creativity is logistics. HOW, do you get your creativity into a reality-based format? How do you make it pay off? What do you have to invest in time, energy, and money?
Having a process allows productive creativity to flourish, to nip the false starts, prune the runaway branches, streamline your output, and ensure the idea you’ve been nurturing has a real chance to bloom.
So, in the event the process culls out an idea, it’s not killing creativity, it’s trimming off a dead branch. The idea is still there, but that route to fruition is no longer viable. You can trash the whole idea and blame the process to boot, OR you can understand the breaking point of that idea, and reconfigure.
My main character isn’t connecting well with my reader base. They think he’s difficult, and non-dimensional. Robotic, even.
I can trash the whole novel. Throw out months of imaginative work, OR I can realize the beta feedback has a valid point and adjust course.
Reconfigure main character to be an actual robot? Opens up world of sci-fi, or alternate reality steampunk?
Add dimensionality to current character actions: show empathic resonance (ie: “Save the Cat”), add in character historical wound, backstory explaining current state, tweak idiosyncrasies, add a phobia or weakness, etc.
Another way to think about the creativity vs. productive creativity is to remember the Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Each time his lightbulb efforts failed to result in a productive outcome, he didn’t throw up his hands and say, “Damn you, process! You killed my creative dream of electric light!”
He simply said, “Well, this isn’t the one. Next?”
The idea remained vibrant and possible. It stayed present in his efforts. The process weeded out the ways the idea wouldn’t succeed, eventually leaving only one viable option.
Conversely, there are ideas that might not re-configure. There are ideas that have no map to fruition, or pathway to completion. Those routes have not been created yet, either by you, or others. There are ideas that hit a limitation of energetic resources, bandwidth, time, or money.
Does the process that reveals those limitations deserve slander? No. Reconfigure if possible, or store the idea for later if it’s a limitation that can be resolved, or bury the idea completely if it hits a wall and cannot be revived. Save energy for the ideas that light your fire, and keep you passionate – those are the ideas that bear fruit. Those are the ideas that will keep feeding your creative hunger and vigor long into your productive career.
- Process is just a tool.
- Creativity and productive creativity are two different states of creation.
- As a creative, fill your toolbox with what works for you individually.
For articles on what’s in my personal creative toolbox, please see:
The Channel (pipeline)
The Sacred Boundary
I’ve been writing for longer than I’d like to admit. I joke about being thrown off of my father’s computer when I was six years old for typing rude words. While that did happen, I’m not certain that particular novel was ever going to come to anything. In reality I’ve been pursuing writing professionally for about ten years now with only one real gap.
That gap lasted almost a year, and it came from one major misunderstanding on my part; I was trying to be a good writer. I‘d heard that a good writer sits down every day to work. I‘d heard that a good writer edits and edits until all of the evil is driven from their manuscript, leaving only shining golden prose.
The first one led me to quit writing for a year, the second stopped me from getting my work published for almost a decade.
Write Every Day
In a perfect world I’d be free to sit down at the computer each morning and write to my heart’s content. I’m getting closer to the goal of becoming a full-time author with every book I get published, but it will still be a few years of hard work yet. Before I get to write for myself, I still have to spend about eight hours each day writing for other people to pay the bills. Back when I quit, I was working twelve hours a day in an unrelated job. Sometimes more. I had no time for hobbies. I had no time for much of anything except sleeping, then heading back to work. Writing was one straw too many. I wasn’t getting anything written even when I did sit down to do it. I was exhausted.
Unfortunately, I had to eat. I had to put a roof over my head. Like most writers in the modern era, I didn’t have rich parents or patrons to lean on. I had to work.
Writing requires energy, something that all of us only have a limited supply of. I was all out. Even now that I’m in a much more comfortable position I sometimes look at that expanse of blank white on the screen and it is too much.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about writing is that most of the work happens long before I put my fingers to the keys. That’s why I can cheerfully churn out a novella in a weekend but writing sprints like NaNoWriMo are a nightmare to me. (The first year that I attempted it nearly prompted me to quit writing all over again, and the month long depression brought me as close as I have ever been to divorce.)
So I am a bad writer. Some days when I’m struggling I just don’t bother. I understand myself well enough to know that I’ll make up for lost time on those good days when inspiration strikes and I have the energy. When I’m working out how long a project is going to take, I average the up and downs.
Refine to Perfection
While banging my head against the wall of having no energy and no idea what I’m working on may have derailed me once or twice over the years, the idea that I could make my writing perfect by coming back to it over and over is what nearly ruins me on a daily basis.
There is an old adage that no work of art is ever completed; only abandoned. My problem is that I just can’t quite pry my fingers off of them. I’ve held onto short stories for years before submitting them. I have a folder of abandoned stories that didn’t even get that far. Too imperfect to even come to fruition. One particular story has gone through the grind of edits and revisions so many times I’ve lost count; comparing the latest draft to the very first, one is clearly inferior to the other. The writing is more grammatically correct perhaps, but the edited version has lost all the passion the first one held.
I know that I’m meant to edit in passes, the first one to put the story structure in order, the second to fix the prose, the third to fix the dialogue and the fourth to fix descriptions. That’s the way I was taught to work by older and more experienced authors when I was first starting out. As it turns out, the correct number of editorial passes for every novel that I have actually sold is one; to pick up any typos.
So I am a bad writer. I don’t edit my work before sending it off, and it is much better for it. Of course, I get pages and pages of notes and changes back from my editors but from what I understand, the situation would be the same regardless of how long I review and revise.
Be a Bad Writer
Writing is an art rather than a science; there is no “right” way to be a writer, only a cacophony of conflicting advice coming at you from all directions. Writing every day does not make you a writer any more than swimming every day makes you a fish.
It has taken me years of practice to get to the stage where I believe my work is good enough to be published. Years in which I took classes, studied the craft of writing, and read extensively.
Being a “good” writer made me miserable. Being a “bad” writer made me successful. If you can call someone who still has to eat Ramen for every other meal successful.
G D Penman writes Speculative Fiction. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. He is a firm believer in the axiom that any story is made better by dragons. His beard has won an award. If you have ever read a story with Kaiju and queer people, it was probably one of his. In those few precious moments that he isn’t parenting or writing he likes to watch cartoons, play video and tabletop games, read more books than are entirely feasible and continues his quest to eat the flesh of every living species. He is the author of over a dozen books including; The Year of the Knife, Motherland, Call Your Steel and Heart of Winter.
I’m so excited to be able to post my interview with Kelli Richards from All Access Radio! We are entering the era of the creative! Please leave comments and feel free to share.
Sometimes when I’m working a section of story and can’t find my connection to the sensory elements to anchor myself into the moment, I have to go outside my comfort zone.
My little brother gifted me a skydiving adventure when I was writing Murder of Crows. I had no real idea what terminal velocity felt like, and that one plummet from an airplane was enough sensory overload to rip out an entire chapter and re-write it because it taught me so much about the reality vs. the imagination.
I’ve had similar issues with Sinnet of Dragons, namely, the dragons. Sure, my imagination is rich, but I also work full time in a non-creative function, so my ability to dig into a lush mental-scape can sometimes feel clunky and take more effort than it should.
I’d been struggling with the experience of flight for Sinnet of Dragons. Flying on an open dragon seat, or an Oritove carrier is a completely different experience than flying in an Avian sling, well, I imagine.
But I’d been struggling as to how to define those differences. So I went on a short open seater, biplane flight with nostalgicwarbirdrides.com in Pacific City this weekend.
That fifteen-minute ride blew my mind. So much wonder, beauty, and breathtaking freedom.
I landed buzzing with energy, legs shaking, face aching from grinning and my hair a wild massive matted mess. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience and what it did for my research.
Dragons are faster than Avians, the wind speeds require different attire for eyes and mouths. (The wind burned tears from my eyes and left crusty streaks into my hairline. Next time, goggles.) Oritoves are even faster.
They will be less affected by crosswinds than Avians, but have a wider banking requirement.
Sea salt air and summer iodine brine taste different higher up. It’s definitely chillier than I’ve been writing for that altitude, I’ll make adjustments for that. Easier to dehydrate, possibly from grinning with my mouth open for so long. And so on and so forth, the sensory data unleashed a writing storm.
While it doesn’t seem like much, or even necessary to some, these little adventures make enormous differences in the texture of the story and quality of the writing. It’s one thing to imagine it, and another to get as close to an experience as you can (Dragons being nearly impossible, obviously) in order to anchor as much reality into the language and storytelling as possible.
As an artist, this leads to some potentially strange experiences and adventures… if you’re lucky.
Thank you, Mike Carpentiero, for a fabulous lift and a glorious Saturday morning.
Here’s to more exciting flight research in the future!
‘Irises’ Van Gogh, 1889
How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)
Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.
Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.
Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.
You Must Retain Amateur Status
The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.
Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.
You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.
Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist
Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.
That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?
Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.
Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”
If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.
Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.
Work as Hard as a Professional
The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.
Prince wrote a song a day. Steven King writes 2,000 words every day. Anthony Burgess not only wrote 2,000 words a day, but also composed classical music during the evenings.
A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.
Work Ethic is Empowering
The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.
Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons
Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.
If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.
For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.
The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses
Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.
What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.
Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.
A Professional Artist Goes Public
An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.
Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.
You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.
Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?
You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.
‘Wheat Field With Crows’, Van Gogh 1890
Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever
We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.
The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.
I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.
Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.
Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.
To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.
- Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
- Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
- Put your work in front of others.
Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Four years ago I was going through the query grind with ‘Murder of Crows’. After 122 rejections, which I blogged about religiously, “We’d love to publish your book if you re-write it from a male point of view” “we’d like to accept your book for representation, but would like you to take a gender neutral pen name”, “remove the three old women characters, the NaNas. No one wants to see old ladies” etc.
I did get a handful of rejects and requests for re-writes that were related to the actual craft of storytelling, primarily pacing, and over-describing, which were AWESOME pieces of feedback and I used them immediately.
The point is, I never considered making sexist changes in exchange for publication. Why? Because the publication game is simply that, it’s a game. If you want to serve the story – the actual audience, you don’t play the game. After 122 rejections I self-published, and didn’t look back.
I am currently querying ‘Sinnet of Dragons’. Don’t worry, I’ve picked out my 20 agents, and I’ll be done after that, and on with the rest of the plan.
Half of the beta packages have been sent out, and three of the readers are in the target demographic of 14-18 years of age. Two of those readers are defined gender: male.
I am still writing from my birth name, Athena. The character POV is still Fable’s voice, a girl on the verge of puberty and introduction to her Muse power. I’m still including most of the characters from ‘Murder of Crows’, including the NaNas, who were dearly adored by readers (not so much by agents and sales people, but readers love them).
The funniest conversation I had while arranging for a fifteen-year-old male reader was with his mother who said, “He loves fantasy! He read Lord of the Rings and he goes through books like crazy.”
(An aside: girls out-read boys 2 to 1. This has led to the often erroneous assumption that boys don’t read. This is simply not true. They read a lot, but I have heard complaints from male readers at signings that they’re bored with the same fiction on the market… they’re tired of reading the same stories over and over. See “Knowing your audience” and queue conversations about gender and diversity in YA literature.)
I replied to her, “Did you know there aren’t any female characters in The Hobbit? They added females for the movie to help balance it out. Also, the entire “fellowship” was male.”
She nodded. “I did notice that.”
“Please ask your son if he’s okay reading a book about girls, and girl issues. As in, periods.”
I went on to explain that Fable Montgomery gets her period, and is therefore eligible by age to be executed for her perceived crimes. I make a consistent parallel in the story about the constant fear and threat of death that women have for being female. Being blooded means being fair game for all sorts of atrocity. It was the point I was trying to make, that much of the disconnect between gender disparity and misunderstandings occur in the real world, because when boys DO read, they are fed only masculine, hyper control concept fiction and storytelling. Something remotely feminine can be a repulsion because they have not been exposed to it in their story matrix.
As a society, we rely almost exclusively on our story matrices to define our perceptions and place in the overall picture. (Story includes religion, and social cultural normative expectations)
“Oh, he’ll do it,” she said.
“Can you please check with him first?”
“I know he’ll do it, because he wants to buy a basketball with the beta reader money.”
I laughed. “Okay, well, if he’s game and wants to do it, he only gets paid if he fills out the survey and completes the steps. It’s a story about a girl and her period… so I guess we’ll see how bad he wants that basketball.”
I was sure to tell her, that there was no obligation. If he stopped halfway through the book, just mark where he left off and leave an explanation: I can’t read anymore, it’s boring/stupid/gross. Then I’ll know where to tweak and tone it down a notch. No need to torture the kid.
However, the whole conversation let to a bunch of other conversations. I expect to do several more re-writes by the time the beta data comes in. The questionnaires allow for free thought as well as targeted questions about the characters and story.
Working in R&D had made a huge impact on how I started redoing the beta packages, thinking of the readers as consumer testers, and asking questions I thought they might be too uncomfortable to tell me outright. Try not to lead the question, but leave it open for them to acknowledge, yes, there was that thing that was off but didn’t know how to articulate it.
I have a few more packages to send out, and we’ll know by the end of July where it all falls. By end of August, I’ll wrap up my query process and we’ll be on to the next phase.
More to come on our social and story matrix, and how we as storytellers, and artists are in key positions to help inform the needed changes to be a more inclusive society, a more balanced representation of our diversity and humanity.
Humanize the story.
Writing With Hand Tools
In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.
- Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
- Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
- Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
- Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
- Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
- Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.
Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.
Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.
Writing Without Writing
Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.
For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.
That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.
Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.
In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.
Writing is a Craft
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.
Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.
Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.
Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.
Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology
The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.
To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….
Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.
Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.
He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.
Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.
An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.
It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.
Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)
You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.
A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.
A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.
To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.
Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.
Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.
Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.
Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Prepping the beta packages. They will should be done shipping out next weekend!
This time, I’m including survey material, chocolate, and a Starbucks card, along with the usual tools. Then Sinnet of Dragons will be off my desk for the next month, and I can focus on the website, until we reach the next milestone!
Baby steps. We’re getting there.