Monday, November 2, 2015

Read Christine Kohler on keeping an emotions journal [yours truly is quoted]

Photo by Jacek Halicki
It’s been a long time since that idyllic trip to the Adirondacks: cue the big sigh. Cobwebs are dangling all over this blog since then, however, but before I go into “poor poor pitiful me” mode to make my excuses for that, let me first do a little crowing. My friend and colleague Christine Kohler—author of the YA historical novel No Surrender Soldier—has a new blog post over at UncommonYA that is well worth reading. It’s about how keeping an emotions journal can help writers create more vivid, compelling characters. Christine did me the honor of quoting me on the subject, too, so please head on over and check it out. 

So other than contributing, in a small way, to that blog post, what has been keeping me silent here? Well, first I had to pay for my month in the mountains kayaking by coming home and working through a mountain of manuscript critiques. It’s work I love, mind you, so I’m not complaining. But it took a while. After which I dashed off to DisneyWorld with my sisters and parents in mid-September. It was the first time I’ve ever been there without kids in tow, and it was fun enjoying it as a grown-up: despite the punishing 104 degree heat. I love the Haunted Mansion!

Then I came home and had a total knee replacement on Sept. 30th: ouch. I’d been dreading this for years, but when you can’t keep up at the Magic Kingdom with your 83-year-old mother who’s had spinal surgery, you know it’s time.

Not my knee, but close

According to everyone, I’m having the most phenomenal recovery in the annals of medicine—so much so that I’ve scheduled the second op for the other knee in early December.

Still, this surgery has knocked the wind out of my sails. What I call “Pain Brain” makes it hard to string three coherent words together into a sentence, much less be creative. So I hope you’ll forgive the silence of the past few months, and the silence to come. But it will all be worth it: and next year I’ll come back stronger than ever.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Drifting on a lake of peace—and I've got a chapter in a new book that just came out

© Photo by Nancy Butts
The wandering writer has found her way home at last. I just returned from a nearly-idyllic month away from the suffocating heat and humidity of summer in the South. I spent all that time in one of two mountain ranges: the Blue Ridge in Virginia; and the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, about an hour from the Canadian border.

I am lucky enough to have a sister with a camp, as they call it up there, on a lake in the Adirondacks, and that’s where I spent three weeks with my loud and crazy family.

And for those three weeks, I found I was able to live each day for itself, not worrying about what went before or what lay ahead. That is a gift that is rarely given, and I tried to appreciate every moment of it. Being unplugged from email, television, newspapers, and the Internet certainly helped banish the usual stresses of modern everyday life. And so I was able to steep in the refreshingly cool silence, and bask in the bright sunshine like the little brick-colored lizard that lived beneath the outdoor shower. My favorite thing was to get up at dawn to kayak when the lake was like glass, with loons trailing along behind me and a bald eagle soaring overhead. 

But all idylls have to come to an end, so now I’m back at my desk and already a little cranky from having to juggle deadlines. Sigh.

© Photo by Nancy Butts
However, in the days and weeks to come, whenever I need a respite, I think I will be able to dip from that deep lake of peace inside me that I filled up while I was in the mountains.

And I do have some exciting news to share. Chris Eboch, my fellow writer and instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature, has recently published a new book, You Can Write for Children.

She has kindly included a chapter from me inside! With my permission, she used some of the material from my web series on viewpoint in a chapter in her book on POV. So please, check it out. Chris’ latest book makes an excellent companion to her other guide on writing, Advanced Plotting. That’s a resource I recommend constantly to my students and clients.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Choosing the Perfect POV: The Writer’s Quest for the Holy Grail

Note: This is the sixth and last in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived here on my website as downloadable PDFs.

Finding the perfect form of POV for your book is a lot like the legendary quest for the Holy Grail: one wrong choice can spell your doom. Just ask the characters in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Photo by Madder
Photo by Madder of Grail in Valencia, Spain

In that film, Walter Donovan is a rich American businessman so greedy for eternal life that he collaborates with the Nazis in order to track down the Grail. But the immortal knight who has been guarding the chalice for centuries warns, “The true Grail will bring you life; the false grail will take it from you.”

Undeterred, Donovan chooses a glitzy gold cup and drains it in one smug gulp. Moments later, his face caves in, his eyeballs shrivel up, and finally his entire body crumbles to dust as he shrieks in agony and terror.

The knight looks on dispassionately and deadpans, “He chose…poorly.” Oops!

Donovan’s lethal fate is precisely what you want to avoid when deciding which form of POV to use in your book. You certainly don’t want to make a poor choice that can suck the life out of your carefully-crafted story. But how do you choose wisely?

As I’ve suggested in this series on “Demystifying Viewpoint,” one way to understand POV is to think of it this way—which character is wearing the glasses through which readers view all the events of the book?

I’ve written about both single and multiple POV, and confessed that I am something of a single POV Puritan; both as a writer and a reader, I prefer books where the narrative glasses sit firmly on the nose of just one character from beginning to end.

But I tried to give equal time to multiple POV, since so many fine books, both for kids and adults, are written this way—with the viewpoint glasses switching from one character to another as the book unfolds.

I even wrote about omniscient POV: that form of viewpoint where none of the characters in the book is wearing the viewpoint glasses. Instead, the author reserves those for herself, in one guise or another.

But despite mocking myself a little as a Single POV Puritan, I do realize that this is not the best way to write every novel.  It may sound like heresy for me of all people to say this, but some types of books are more effective if readers can experience them through the perspective of multiple characters—or even via the voice of an all-knowing narrator.

So how do you choose which character should wear the viewpoint glasses? How do you decide which form of POV is best for a particular project?

The answer is straightforward: you need to choose the viewpoint technique that will work best to accomplish your literary goals. That’s the fundamental question you need to ask yourself when you first sit down to write. What is your purpose with the book—to scare readers, or to make them laugh? To make them cry or to ignite them with anger? To lead them on a wild adventure, or to make them ponder emotional truths or existential questions? Your choice of viewpoint can help or hinder you in any of those goals.

In a blog article on multiple POV, writer Christine Kohler has written eloquently about her reasons for choosing that technique for her YA historical novel, No Surrender Soldier [Merit Press, Fall 2014]. Her thought process can be a model for any writer struggling to make this pivotal decision. 

“[The book]…is told in two POVs because the WWII soldier, Isamu Seto, is hiding in the jungle. In 1972, when Kiko’s story takes place, no one knows the soldier exists. If I had told the story in a single POV, then it might have still been suspenseful for Kiko to discover the soldier, but I would not have been able to show the reader how and why Seto hid and survived for 28 years in the jungle. Both POVs are in past tense since this is a historical novel.

“However, 15-year-old Kiko’s POV chapters are in first person, whereas Seto’s chapters are in third person. I wrote it this way so the reader could identify with Kiko, and not Seto. The third person puts a bit more psychic distance between the reader and the character.”
Kohler made a daring choice here; it was a risky move to write even part of a novel aimed at YA readers from the POV of an adult—and an adult who is likely to be viewed as a “bad guy” by readers, at least initially. But she had a compelling narrative reason to do so—that’s the key. Then she was careful to mitigate the risks she took by making another wise decision. She kept the sections in her Japanese soldier’s point of view in third person in order to give readers a “safe zone.” Using third person means that young readers don’t have to get that close to Seto if they don’t want to; they can still cling to young Kiko as their proxy in the book.

Genre: Note also that Kohler is writing a historical saga, one that spans three decades. A saga can be historical, covering a broad range of time; geographical, covering a sweeping event that happens in many places at once, such as a war, natural catastrophe, or the zombie apocalypse; or speculative, by which I mean a fantasy or sci fi book that builds an entirely new world [or universe] for readers. As much as it pains a single POV Puritan like myself to say this, such sagas might be too limited, too narrow in their scope, if told from the viewpoint of just one character. Such books work best with either multiple POV or omniscient narration. This way readers can get the full impact of the big event by viewing it through the lenses of several different viewpoint characters, or an all-knowing one.

On the other hand, it might work better to stick with the single POV of your detective if you are writing a mystery, where you want readers to compete with the hero in a race to solve the crime, based on clues that only your detective-protagonist knows.

Single POV can also work well in a book where you want to scare readers, such as a horror or ghost story. In books like this, it’s the unknown that ratchets up the level of fear, so the limited knowledge of a single POV character can be highly effective.

A romance, on the other hand, might be more intriguing if you tell it in the dual POV of both parties in the relationship. [Although this use of POV is common in adult romances, in YA romance a single POV is often used instead.]

• Audience: Consider your target audience as well. A more complex use of viewpoint—such as rotating through several different POV characters in the course of a novel—can well with older YA readers, but could possibly fall flat with middle graders. Multiple POV can confuse or put off younger readers, who aren’t as experienced with literary techniques and may respond better to a simpler, more direct approach.

I learned this the hard way with a middle grade ghost story that I’m working on. In the first draft, I had seven—count ‘em, SEVEN!—viewpoint characters. I was convinced I had the writing chops to pull this off; can you say over-confident and delusional? I was 150 pages into the manuscript before I finally realized that one of my characters had staged a mutiny. A quirky little guy whom I had originally thought was just a minor character turned out to be my real hero, so I had to rewrite the entire blasted book. [The fact that the revision turned out to flow so naturally was my clue that I was doing the right thing; I should have listened to my inner Puritan and stuck with single POV in the first place.]

• Reader relationship to hero: Perhaps most importantly, consider your protagonist. What kind of relationship do you want readers to have with your hero or heroine? The more strongly you want your readers to identify with your hero, the more likely it is that you’ll want to use single POV, whether in first or limited third person: perhaps even in Deep POV.

On the other hand, if you are writing a book where the main character is an anti-hero, or even a villain, using first-person narration or a tight single third-person POV might be too claustrophobic for readers. Who wants to be stuck in the head of a sadistic bully for an entire book? When you don’t expect readers to like your protagonist, you may want to hold them at a distance by using a more distant form of third person POV, or even omniscient. Or you can minimize the amount of time readers have to spend with your unlikeable protagonist by switching off periodically to other, more sympathetic characters using multiple POV.

• Literary goals: Finally, don’t forget to consider how the form of POV you choose can help you achieve your other literary goals for the book. Maybe you are writing a story where much of the dramatic impact at the climax comes from a twist that you have cagily been hiding up your sleeve for the entire plot. Your choice of POV is absolutely critical here, because you need to control the information that readers have in order to keep the twist hidden. This is a time where omniscient POV would almost certainly be the wrong choice: the narrator’s all-encompassing knowledge would make it very difficult for you to avoid lying to readers–which isn’t playing fair with them—and yet not reveal too much too soon. Try multiple POV for this kind of book where the twist is vital, so that you can use each POV character to dispense carefully-controlled snippets of information.

Books with a twist also work well in single POV, especially with a kind of viewpoint character called an unreliable narrator. Edgar Allen Poe is brilliant at this, as is the Golden Age mystery novelist Agatha Christie in the classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Another masterful example of the unreliable narrator is Louise in Katherine Paterson’s Newbery-winning Jacob Have I Loved. Louise narrates the entire book in first person, and without spoiling the twist, let’s just say that she is wearing green-tinted glasses through the entire novel. Her perspective of events is definitely biased, in a way that misleads readers as to the motivations of other characters, yet without ever lying to them.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when you start a new project and need to decide how you are going to tell your story. You need to think about your genre, your target audience, and the relationship you want readers to have with your main character.

But most of all, you need to have a clear understanding of what your story goals are. When you know what dramatic effects you want to create, what emotional reactions you want to engender, and what themes you want to explore, then you can choose the right pair of POV glasses from your literary optical shop, so that readers will see what you want them to see.

Thank you for joining me in what has turned into a bit of a saga itself: it took me nearly two years to complete all six articles in the series. My hope is that buried somewhere in this torrent of words is advice that can help you make your stories shine.

As the Grail knight said, “Choose wisely” when deciding what POV technique to use in order to bring life to your book.

[© 2015 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Friday, February 27, 2015

Power Can Go To Your Head: The Perils of Omniscient POV

Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

Library of Congress
Some of my favorite books are written in omniscient viewpoint—and yet omni POV is my least favorite form of narration. It makes even the most modern of books sound antique—and don't even get me started on the almost ubiquitous head hopping to be found in novels with omniscient narration.  I am convinced that such head hopping is the leading cause of vertigo among avid readers. Seriously. The National Institutes of Health should do a study.

OK, let me remove my tongue from my cheek for a moment. If you have read the earlier installments of this web series on viewpoint, you will already know that I am just a teensy bit prejudiced in favor of single viewpoint.  I'm not all that fond of shifting or multiple POV; and I have just made it obnoxiously clear that omni POV, as I will call it for short, is also a member of my Hall of Shame.

That being said, I adore books like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket—both of which make use of omniscient narration. And I'm not just pinching my nose, holding my breath, and vowing to "get through it" when I read these books either. I actually enjoy what these two gifted storytellers are able to accomplish with their skillful use of omniscient viewpoint.

So what separates good from bad when it comes to omni POV? And why do I think that it is a very dangerous form of narration, especially for new writers?

Before I talk about that, let me back up and make sure it is clear  exactly what omniscient viewpoint is. It comes in several different flavors, the distinctions between which can get fairly subtle.  In the book The Power of POV which I have recommended multiple times in this web series, Alicia Rasley divides omniscient narration into three basic kinds: objective, classical omniscient, and contemporary omniscient.

For the purposes of this piece, however, I don't think it's useful to delve too deeply into the distinctions between them. If you're interested, read Rasley's book [which I think you should do anyway].

I think the most helpful way to look at omniscient narration is simply to think of it as another kind of third person. We are already familiar with limited third person, where a book is written using he/she but the perspective remains inside the mind of one or more of the characters.

Well, in omniscient narration you are for the most part outside the viewpoint of any of the characters. Thus you can think of omni POV as a distant or impersonal form of third person rather than a personal one; or an exterior form of third person rather than an interior one.

Photo by Steve Wilson
Whatever it is called, when you write in omniscient narration you are not limited by anything any of the characters know—hence the name omniscient, which means all-knowing. Omni POV is a good way to let readers in on information that you don't want your hero to know just yet. For example, if your main character is trying to sneak up on the lair of the villain, you can increase the tension and suspense for readers by letting them know about the evil minions lurking in the shadows, while at the same time keeping the hapless hero in the dark about the danger that awaits him. " Three men with guns stood as still as statues on the other side of the door whose lock Archie had just successfully picked."

Omniscient narration is also handy in certain genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and sweeping historical sagas. Here a writer can use omni POV to do two things. First, the all-knowing author can use her omniscience to fill readers in on necessary history or backstory that again, no one character might know.

Second, if it's important to the book for the author to keep track of how multiple characters are affected by something like a war , natural catastrophe, man-made apocalypse, or epic quest, omniscient narration is a smoother, more seamless way to do that than a frequently-shifting multiple POV. [Which can end up feeling like a game of musical chairs; when the chapter stops, readers wonder, which character's chair do I have to scramble to sit in next?]

But in a touch of dramatic irony that fiction writers can appreciate, it is the very strengths of omni POV which can lead to its doom.   The all-knowing writer's ability to expound at length on absolutely any character's backstory, any event's history, any fantasy world's provenance,  or any sci-fi gadget's fascinating inner technology can all too quickly lead to the dreaded "information dump." That's what it's called when a writer allows the characters to go into hibernation and the plot to stall out while she goes on and on for pages of exposition, in what amounts to a term paper within the novel. Boring!

And if you're not careful, omniscient narration can lead you to reveal too much, too soon—which can ruin a good thriller, ghost story, or mystery.

I also think that omniscient narration can sound old-fashioned to today's readers, since many of the classics that we grew up on—or were forced to read by our English teachers at school—were written in omniscient narration. So even if a book was published in the 21st century, if it is written in omniscient POV, we feel a sort of literary déja vu when we read it—a flashback that makes the modern story feel as if it were a relic from the 19th century.

But to me the number one failing, the Fatal Flaw, of omniscient narration, is its impersonality. Readers don't know who it is that is dispensing this encyclopedia of information. Is it some god-like narrator, or is it the author? If it's the latter, is he or she wearing an invisibility cloak that we're supposed to pretend not to see, or is this some kind of purposeful meta-fictional insertion of the writer's persona into the book?

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Or is the narrator an eerily amorphous no one at all? That's the hallmark of what Rasley calls objective  or camera's-eye POV.

And not only are readers unsure of who the narrator is in omniscient viewpoint, and what their relationship to that narrator is supposed to be, they also aren't given the opportunity to get know any of the characters all that well. As a consequence,  readers may never bond with any character. That emotional distance heightens the risk of alienating readers from the book all together, to the point that they put it down for good.

Writers who use omniscient POV know this, which is perhaps why you see a lot of what is called "dipping," or momentarily slipping into the viewpoint of one of the book's characters. JK Rowling is a genius at this. The first chapter of  Goblet of Fire is a superb example of how to write omniscient narration well.

Midway through the chapter, Rowling makes the graceful narrative glissade that is called dipping. Within the space of one paragraph, she descends gradually from the stratospheric heights of omniscience. First she slips into the heads of several nameless village boys, all at once, in a kind of joint or communal POV, telling us that they teased the crippled old gardener Frank Bryce simply for the cruel fun of it.

Then, in the very next sentence, Rowling descends even further. This times she dips into Frank's head to tell us that Frank has misinterpreted the boys' motives. He believes that they torment him because they blame him for the murders of Tom Riddle and his family—though we already know that those murders bear the unmistakeable stamp of dark magic.

The fact that Rowling changes POV twice in one paragraph could mark this as head hopping—the worst of the writer's Deadly Sins. Indeed, it can be difficult to know when a writer has transgressed, crossing the line from dipping to head hopping, and I am probably a harsher judge of that than most.  Nonetheless, I think Rowling avoids being branded with head hopping here primarily because for the rest of the chapter, she stays in Frank's head. If she had jumped back out of Frank's head again, that would have been head hopping.

But it's a narrow escape, and that's my point; it's devilishly difficult to avoid head hopping when you write in omniscient narration and try to dip. Harsh judge that I am, I think that  author Trenton Lee Stewart made that mistake in his best-selling middle grade novel The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Stewart uses omniscient narration throughout the book, though he frequently dips into several of the characters' viewpoints. Most of the time, he stays in a POV long enough to avoid head hopping—but not always. Look at this passage where the adult mentor is telling the four young characters about a challenging task ahead. One of them gets a little nervous and needs a bathroom break.

...and then Mr. Benedict added, “Now, do you truly need to use the bathroom, or can you wait a few minutes longer?” [Omni POV]
Sticky truly did, but he said, “I can wait.” [Sticky's POV]
“Very well...” Mr. Benedict said [Omni POV]

To me, going into a character's head for just one sentence, and for no compelling plot purpose, is head hopping. So with apologies to Mr. Stewart, I do believe that's what he's done here.

The point is, if a  talented and experienced author can make that kind of slip-up, what hope do the rest of us have of avoiding the same trap? It is just too perilously easy to go astray with omniscient POV.

So proceed at your own risk. If you are writing the kind of book that might benefit from the peculiar powers of omniscient viewpoint, then go for it! Just keep your wits about you at all times, and stay on the lookout for the pitfalls that await the unwary writer with this form of POV.

[© 2015 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Next—Which POV technique is best for you?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Priming the pump: my home-brewed writing practice

Photo by ProjectManhattan
After lamenting the failure of my morning page experiment last week, I vowed to cook up a little something of my own to try instead. No way I was going to give up entirely on my search for  a method that would help me get back on track in terms of my writing.

What I wanted was some regular discipline that would do more than help me be creative in a general sense—which is what Julia Cameron’s morning pages are designed to do.

I also wanted something more than a technique to merely get me started—to get me past that brain-petrifying paralysis that afflicts many of us when we first sit down and try to begin a work session. Giving one a “jump start” like this is what Natalie Goldberg’s freewriting exercise is designed to do.

No, I wanted a more laser-like focus on productivity: on having something useable and at least halfway decent to show for my sweat and tears at the end of the day.

And I did come up with something—although I can’t claim that it is original or unique. Other writers and teachers before me have devised a modification of freewriting, one that gives it more structure by targeting a specific topic or goal for each session.

Once you do that, however, can you call it freewriting anymore? So I’m not naming my “method” that, if you can dignify what I’m doing with that formal a designation. I call it Priming the Pump. It’s simple, but in the first week that I’ve tried it, it’s accomplished just what I hoped it would—it has helped me produce something tangible at the end of each work day, something that moves my work forward in a measurable and substantive way. I’m quietly ecstatic about the results so far.

This method requires that you have a writing project already underway. This is not a brainstorming technique, though I suppose you could use it for that as well. There are five steps to Priming the Pump.

  1. Do a Preliminary Review of a work in progress
  2. Write down a Question of the Day
  3. Spend either a period of time [ten to fifteen minutes?] or a number of words [100 to 700?] sketching out Starting Notes about the question
  4. Seamlessly Shift into Writing actual sentences, paragraphs, and [hopefully] pages
  5. Do a Summary Review of work done. At the end of the session, write down the answer to the initial question, to see what tangible progress you’ve made
I’ve used this five-step practice this week to help claw my way out of an uncharted swamp in the middle of a middle grade novel. I had lots of plot ideas swirling around my head, but they were confusing and contradictory and unclear. After writing the first ten chapters and being stalled for ages, I needed to blow away the fog by figuring out precisely what happens in the remaining chapters of the book. Yes, this means a dreaded outline, which I don’t always use but which I have come to think I desperately need on this particular book.

Photo by Yann Richard (Ze)

The first thing I did was briefly glance over what I had already written of the book, and the notes I’d made for what was to come: Step 1, the Preliminary Review.

From that a clear Question of the Day arose, almost asking itself: Step 2. I wrote it down on a sticky note [an electronic one] and left it floating on the screen of my laptop where it would always be visible. You could do the same thing by using a paper Post-It note, an index card, or by simply jotting down the question at the top of the page on which you’re about to write.

It’s important to be as specific as you can when framing your question, because that specificity will help steer you in a fruitful direction. If you simply ask yourself, “What happens next?” your mind may seem even emptier of words and ideas than before. But if you ask, “What happens after the Hero finds the treasure map but before he meets the nefarious guide?” you will have a much better chance of finding the answer during your daily writing session.

Photo by Jaypee
I think it is also important to write down the question in twenty-words or less, and to keep it somewhere that is always visible during your writing session. Then if you start to feel lost again, you have only to glance up to find your writing “compass” right there to steer you back onto the path.

In Step 3, I don’t think it matters whether you have a time goal for your Starting Notes, or a word goal. Do whatever works best for you. I can dash off 700 words in about 15 minutes, if I’m writing on my Macbook Air or iPad, so 700 words was the goal I set for myself.

But in practice, I found I got so quickly immersed in puzzling out the answer to my question that the goal disappeared. I would look up an hour or so later and realize I had burned up those 700 words a long time ago, and was already well into Step 4: Shift into Writing.

Work as long as you can—whether that means as long as you continue to produce useful work; as long as your poor stiff joints hold out; or as long as your dog, cat, family, or boss at your day job will let you.

I do think it’s important to know when to stop. This is going to vary with every person; we all seem to have only so many hours of good writing in us each day before the juices stop flowing. Pull the plug when you realize that are doing more harm than good by continuing to write: either producing drivel, haring off on a wild detour, or bogging down in a quagmire of confusion or needless complexity.

But before you leap up from your desk and race off to celebrate with a glass of wine, don’t forget Step 5: the Summary Review. Briefly read back over what you’ve written during the session, and write down the answer to your Question of the Day. Don’t skip this step, as I’ve found it helps keep you on target—and often leads to the question you’ll work on the next day. This week while I was experimenting with it, the next day’s question often arose spontaneously while I was writing, which was an unexpected gift.

Writing down the answer to your daily question also keeps your mind working. Even while you are going about the non-literary part of your life—wiping your kids’ noses, doing the taxes, vacuuming the carpet—your writer’s brain is hard at work at a subconscious level, wrestling with a thorny problem although you’re not actively thinking about it. And that will make it all the easier for you to not only get started the next time you sit down to write, but to make actual headway on whatever it is you’re writing.

That’s the crux of this “priming” method: to have useable work to show for it at the end of the day. It may be a completed outline for a novel or non-fiction article. Or it may be a page, a scene, or even an entire chapter. Yes, these pages may “only” qualify as a first draft, but a solid one: much more than what I call “word salad,” a chaotic, loose jumble of raw ideas. 

In one week of using this system, I have not only mapped out a plot route through the second half of my novel, but I’ve also generated this blog post, and written the lead to an article on omniscient POV on which I have been stalled for months.

Photo by Editor5807
If this pump-priming method works as well for you as it has for me, then I hope you have a draft cohesive and clear enough that you can revise it without needing to either deconstruct it completely or throw it all away.

No method works for every writer, so there is no money-back guarantee for this free advice. :D But if you try it, I’d love to hear what your experience with Priming the Pump is.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Morning pages? Epic fail, but new experiment coming

While I was laid up in a cast after Achilles tendon surgery the past two months, I decided to give Julia Cameron's morning pages a try, subjecting the fabled advice on creativity to a 30-day experiment. And for me at least, morning pages were a flop.

I make this declaration even though I enjoyed writing them every morning, and even though I felt they had some benefit. But they didn't achieve what I thought was their purpose—not just to unlock one's creativity in some vague and general sense, but rather to fuel a new burst of tangible, concrete productivity. This they did not do, not for me.

Now one can argue that I have misunderstood the raison d'être of morning pages, especially since, like the woman who wrote this  sardonic blog post on "recovering" from The Artist's Way , I stubbornly refused to actually read any of Cameron's books. Instead, I relied on the instructions I found on Cameron's blog.

Perhaps Cameron never intended for morning pages to be as utilitarian as I wanted them to be. Maybe they are designed to be more like a routine tune-up for the creative spirit—something to lubricate the valves, clean the sludge out of the carburetor, and get the engine ready to run without worrying about whether the car ever leaves the driveway. But what I was hoping for was something that would actually propel me down the road, so I could rack up some real mileage on the odometer. And that didn't happen.

I did look forward to writing my 700 words—which is how I translated Cameron's prescription that one must complete three pages of longhand writing each day. For reasons that I explained in my previous blog post, I refused to do this by hand as Cameron prescribes. But I did do my pages first thing every morning, and yes, I did feel that it helped reconnect me each day to my identity as a writer.  Certainly, that's a good thing.

But I still think they should be called morning purges, not pages. Because at the risk of being crude, they felt like the psychological equivalent of a visit to the bathroom, clearing one's self of all the emotional crap clogging up the works, making one lighter and freeing up the headspace to sit down to the day's work.

In other words, morning pages to me seem like nothing more esoteric or special than daily journaling. Period. End of sentence. And I was already doing that on a daily basis for the past eleven years, though at night rather than in the morning. And yes, it can be helpful. But it's a psychological/emotional/spiritual exercise, not a specifically creative one.

It's not what I need. This brought me back to freewriting, which I became familiar with via Natalie Goldberg's writings, though she wasn't the first to suggest them either. Dorothea Brande advised something similar in her 1932 classic, Becoming A Writer.

And apparently Jack Kerouac mentions something like the technique as well in his "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose."

Jack Kerouac
But freewriting isn't necessarily aimed at helping you produce more useable prose at the end of the day's work either, and that's what I am looking for.  Freewriting is like a key to switch on the ignition, when what I want is to get out of the garage and make it down the highway to the state line by sunset. 
So I'm playing around in my mind with a tiny spark of an idea, an adaptation of freewriting, one that has a more specific goal: to get my literary jalopy a certain number of miles down the road during each writing session.  I'm not sure what to call it yet, and I'm not sure exactly what form it will take. But words like target, focus, specific, result, productivity, and useability are going to be key, I think.

Stay tuned for my next blog post to see what form this will take.