Saturday, February 25, 2012

Eight reasons why I look in the mirror and see you

The moderator of my local writers' group handed out a list of "Issues Associated with Writing Blocks and Decreased Productivity." It's from the Stanford University Faculty & Staff Help Center, and was compiled by David Rasch, Ph.D. in 1997. Our handout was distilled from the original.

Obviously, there are not only plot and character archetypes, there are some for writers' block also.

Procrastination and avoidance. Well, duh. This is pretty much what all of us do, published and not, at various times. Even though I am almost always motivated to write, when I have trouble with scenes or plot I've been known to pop onto Critique Circle, mosey around the forums, and post when I really have nothing to say.

Negative self-talk. Who hasn't done that? I bet even Stephen King sometimes worries that his current project really belongs in his computer's recycle bin.

Perfectionism. Unrealistic expectations, over-editing, difficulty declaring a project done - no kidding, eh? To be fair, unless you have a professional editor helping you, it's easy to fall into this trap. I've spent innumerable hours in the strait jacket of not knowing what to put in, what to leave out, and related irritants.

Anxiety. The point under this heading that speaks loudest to me is "reinforced patterns of avoiding writing to reduce anxiety." Ahh, I'm really stuck but I should write, and now I'm breaking out in a cold sweat, so I'll go clean the parakeet cage, then I'll water all the houseplants, then I'll play with one of the cats, then it'll be time to listen to the hockey game and I've missed so many because I was writing ....

Psychosomatic. Cramps, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness. I don't have trouble with this. Well maybe the headaches. Well, possibly fatigue. Raise your hand if thinking about the beginning, middle or end of your plot causes any of these symptoms.

Difficulty finishing. Worthy of its own section. "Excessive pre-writing research" --I'd be guilty of that if I could find enough research. "Lose sight of main focus" --I call this the "why bother" syndrome. This story really is stupid anyway, so why bother writing it ... or the other seven stories.

Interpersonal issues. The biggest one for me here is "lack of mentor or colleagues to discuss writing with." It's why I keep going to my local writing meetings even when I haven't submitted anything. Frankly, even sharing nonsense posts on Critique Circle helps me feel connected.

Mental health conditions. *ahem* Hey, do we have to get personal here? Seriously, things like ADD, grieving, clinical depression, are not as solvable by ourselves as the other issues. There may be times when the best thing is to not write and just deal with the bigger issue.

See, you're all sitting there nodding and saying, "Oh, that's me, and that one is really me!" Writers share a whole bunch of problems as well as things like creativity. There's a reason for the stereotype of the drunken writer. This boat we're all in is a lot bigger than any cruise ship.

The list also has tips for improving productivity and I'll share those next week. I'll toss in one right now. The most helpful thing for regaining focus for me has been to think back to what sparked the story in the first place, what pulled me in. I've reduced it to two sentences on an e-sticky on my laptop screen that is always displayed. That tiny seed idea is the key. Go back to that, rediscover the magic and fall in love all over again.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Love the scene? Great! Toss it.

A writer’s voice I’ve never heard haunts me. As I work through revisions of my WIP, the voice repeats a sentence whenever I start thinking, ‘This scene doesn’t fit with the revision, but it came out so well, isn’t there a way to keep it?’ The voice answers with: Not every idea, not even every good one, has to be included.

I wrote a scene in draft 2 where Neal receives a box of things that belonged to his kids and his women, after he’s left the gang. He realizes MF has murdered not just the women but the kids as well. I like how emotional Neal gets; for once, he doesn’t care that somebody sees his true self and his vulnerability. He shows the items to Sandy one at a time and talks about each person he’s lost. It is, rather sadly, a good scene.

However. Things didn’t stop there.

When doing draft 3, I realized the tension would be heightened if I either showed the murders with Neal unable to stop them, or showed him finding the bodies right after the murders. I chose one of those options and, to help pull readers in, I did most of those scenes in Sandy’s POV. Through Sandy, readers get to experience Neal’s loss first-hand, making it more powerful.

I read over draft 2 again. Ohh, I moaned, but look at this part, it’s touching how Neal describes his little kids; how it’s clear that he realizes how much he loves them only after they’re gone. Not every idea, not even every good one, has to be included.

One of the problems with those scenes in draft 2 is that it could be argued I did a fair amount of *telling*. In draft 3 there’s more *showing*, which is more appropriate for something so emotional.

That’s just one example. Bob Kernen’s sentence has been a hot knife through the butter of my writing so, so often. It still hurts to lose scenes that I like (or love), but as I like to say, if I wanted to do something easy, I’d have taken up flower arranging. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten to the point of realizing how to improve something if I hadn’t practiced on scenes that got tossed. By writing everything as if it was the turning point of the story, I practice making scenes the best they can be.

I think this is similar to something I've read about some drummers' approach to songs. When deciding what to play for any given song (especially ones recorded by other people) they don't *overplay*. They do what's best for the song. A few rock drummers I've read about have said they've discovered how powerful well-placed silence can be.

I keep the parts I decide not to include in the actual story. Occasionally, phrases get resurrected in other scenes; sometimes dialogue gets used by another character; I may just keep it to re-read when I’m too tired to write but want to stay connected to the characters.

Not every idea, not even every good one, has to be included. To further illustrate the idea, I’ll end the post here, even though I could say more about it. Go on back to your own story and write!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar (and Joel Selvin)

Gee, Sammy doesn't like David Lee Roth and describes Eddie and Alex Van Halen as the two biggest drunks on the planet (though he says Alex eventually cleaned up) - no surprises there.

Sammy says some pretty nasty things about the Van Halen brothers, some less than flattering things about his own first wife, and takes digs at some other folks. He also throws in some pats on the head for all those people. It kind of strikes me as not being willing to take a stand and just say "I don't like anything about this person." He doesn't seem like a person afraid of lawsuits.

If Roth really couldn't sing well, would fans have kept buying Van Halen records? Maybe his voice didn't hold up well live, but again, fans kept buying tickets. If the brothers and Roth were the walking shambles Sammy describes, I think the fan base would've fallen off.

Still, Sammy says the kind of things that make you wonder. VH is bringing its latest reunion tour to my town in March and I'd almost like to go just to see what happens onstage.

If it's true that sometimes Eddie and Alex would argue in Dutch when they didn't want anybody to know what the stink was about, I would love to be a fly on that wall (a fly who knows Dutch).

What I do like about this book is that it doesn't sound like the professional writer did all the work. It sounds like Sammy all the way. I could picture him lounging in a beach chair while reciting all this stuff. I didn't realize that the guy has several viable businesses. I just think it's funny how he makes himself out to be this guy who worked hard for everything he has and only has a couple regrets, while the Van Halens come off as dudes who can't seem to hold anything together.

Two things about the writing did bother me. One, I didn't get a sense of how much time passed, in the first 2/3 of the book. Sammy talks about projects getting started, getting derailed, then put back on track without giving an idea of how long any of that took. For me, time references are touchstones that really help give a sense of a life being lived.

Two, Sammy repeats himself sometimes. Then he  comes off as defensive or bragging. At this point in his career and his life, one would think he'd be past feeling the need to get some revenge in print. I guess we really are all alike inside.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

“Drumbeats” by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

I confess, this is the first work of Anderson’s I’ve read. Maybe his novels are better. This short story has potential but gave me the feeling that the authors had a word limit so some things were left simplified.

As a Rush fan, I believe the bulk of this story was written by Anderson. I read part of one non-fiction book that Neil wrote and even that much reflected Neil’s affinity for detail. About his lyrics, I've always felt any amibiguity was there purposely, so listeners could easily adapt songs to their own lives. Parts of “Drumbeats” strike me as timid writing. The author could have been more imaginative or redolent, but decided to take the easy way out.

And frankly, what disappoints me just as much is Neil’s afterword. He spends far too much time singing Anderson’s praises (if I may crack a pun). Even if Anderson’s novels are considered successful, maybe not all his works are gems. A little backstory on how they started corresponding is fine and even interesting, but honestly, I wound up feeling all that “Kevin is really, really wonderful” stuff was either forced or Neil felt he owed Anderson something for being a Rush fan.

Because my Kindle tells me how far along I am by percentages rather than page numbers, I can tell you that that the story ended 53% of the way through the download. The rest was Neil’s afterword and synopses of Anderson’s other books. So while I only paid $2.99, there wasn’t much actual story.

On the plus side, the story’s big twist did surprise me. It is a bit creepy but in a good way. I’d definitely like to see the idea expanded, provided a longer story was better written. There were spots where the setting and characters came to life. With more effective showing, this could be a great story.

Then I found out that Sammy Hagar has a book out, and there went $12.99. I’ve read the foreword by Michael Anthony and the first few pages of chapter one. I suspect Sammy made use of his imagination when talking about his childhood, but one wouldn’t really expect much different. I’ll have a review of his Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock next week or the week after.