Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekly Update: 5-31-13

Last Saturday, I visited Huntington Library.

The name is misleading.  This "library" is more like three or four permanent museums plus a couple rotating galleries stitched together with half a dozen botanical gardens.  Both times I came obstensibly to write.  You know that old writer fantasy of sitting in a beautiful place, soaking up inspiration, and pouring forth the words.  That was supposed to be my Saturday.

It didn't quite work.  I was too busy flitting from flower to Greek sculpture to American art exhibition to Japanese garden to really focus on this little "writing" distraction.  Thus I began my last week of May with approximitely 1 hour of writing done, a messy draft still in shambles, and 25-odd pages to meticulously edit before Friday.  Ominous indeed.

Now, it's Friday.  Did I finish my draft of the last crucial chapter of my novel.  No, sadly, I did not.

I did, however, edit 17 of the 22 pages I whittled it down to, write an 8-page chapter of my coffin story, take 2 subbing jobs, and Beta read a novella for my friend.  How did I do all this?  I have no idea?  The best I can figure, all that anguish I suffered last week tearing apart my chapter somehow paid off.  Editing came more smoothly.  

Hopefully, I'll be able to finish my chapter over the weekend.  If not, a few days after.  Technically, it's still late, but only by a few days.  And I'll call that a victory.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 3: "I Can Identify My Problem"


Two weeks ago, we examined three manifestations of writer's block: being unable to identify the precise problem, identifying the problem but being unable to think of a solution, and just not having enough material to work with.  Last week, we used brainstorming to get from mindless ranting to figuring out the trouble spots.  Which brings us to this week.

The Problem

You can identify precisely where your story went wrong.  Maybe your main character has made stupid decisions and you need to break him of that habit.  Maybe your world-building isn't up to par.  Maybe you can't figure out where or how to do the final confrontation.  The point is, you know your headache.  But how do you fix it?


Half the times, simply stating the problem automatically leads you to a solution.  For example, if you realize that the path to the capital is blocked by a battle, take your characters by a different route.

Other times, however, the solution is not obvious.  Don't worry.  As a writer, you are infinitely creative and resourceful.  Given enough time and effort, you will find a way to solve your problem.  The trick is to get your brain to be loose and flexible.  And for that, I humbly offer these suggestions.

Throw Ideas Until Something Sticks

This is a very simple, but proven method.  Take a piece of paper and a pencil (or a computer, if you prefer) and write down whatever pops into your head.  Throw ideas around until you find one that makes you go, "Ah-ha!" or at least "Hm, maybe..."  If nothing works, set your writing aside for a little while and look at it again with fresh eyes.

"Big deal," you say.  "My first grade teacher taught me this method."

Fair enough.  So let me offer my own insight.  The difficulty here is not tossing out ideas, so much as it is shutting off the critical part of the brain.  And how do you do that?

First of all, reassure yourself that, unlike those painful group brainstorming sessions in grade school, where your teacher assured you there are no stupid ideas while your laughing friends immediately contradicted her, here no one will ever read your writing.  What happens in brainstorming, stays in brainstorming.  There's no ridicule attached.

Second of all, as soon as the first stupid, obvious, unworkable, this-doesn't-even-count-as-an-idea idea pops into your head, WRITE IT DOWN.  It generally opens the floodgates to more ideas.  Maybe the new ideas are just as bad.  Doesn't matter.  Grit your teeth and commit them to paper.  Bad ideas are better than nothing.  You can work on bad ideas.  You can't work with nothing.

Listen to Your Judgement

Now maybe during those painfully embarrassing brainstorming sessions, your elementary teacher proclaimed, "This is a judgement free zone." And if you can turn off your judgement, great.  But personally, I can't always do that--it's part of my perfectionism.  So instead of trying to suppress it, I use judgement as a brainstorming tool.


First, I try to be fair and logical.  Saying "This is stupid" helps no one.  Saying "This is stupid, because...." can actually trigger more ideas.  If I know the knight slaying the dragon is obvious and cliche, my brain might say, "All right, so what's original?"  The princess slaying the dragon?  The dragon having a heart attack?  The dragon faking its death?

If you can't turn your judgement into a positive force, write down your judgement and move on.  Give it no more space than the actual idea. Holding in your judgement gives it more power--writing it down deflates it a bit.  As long as you don't wallow in your judgement, it should be fine.

Attack from the Sides

If your problem is plot, stop and take a look at the setting.

Elements of a story are linked together.  Your character's decisions influence the plot; the events of the plot affects the character's mindset.  Each added element is a new door into your story.  You don't always have to go in through the front gate.  Sometimes the back door is preferable.

One of my favorite tricks is to take a deep look into the motivations, backgrounds, and secrets of minor characters.  That worn-out innkeeper your hero talked to on page 11 might have been a rebel fighter in his youth.  Maybe he still keeps a list of all his compatriots and stockpiles weapons in the basement.

Look around.  You never know what you'll find.

Break Taboos

Do you ever find yourself thinking like this?

Poor Stable Boy has great chemistry with Witty Bar Maid, but he's supposed to end up with Beautiful Princess.

My heroes must take the Black Fortress by Midsummer's Eve, but I can't seem to get them there on time.

The Fizzy Fairy won't appear until Chapter 32, but she has the Amulet of Truth my White Knight needs to defeat the Black Wizard on Chapter 27.

Supposed to.  Must.  Won't.  Pay attention to these words in your writing.  They indicate the taboos you have secretly erected in your mind.

Long ago, you came up with an idea you thought would fit.  Three drafts later, that wispy thought has calcified into a stone pillar.  You think removing it would cause the whole story to tumble down on your head.

Try it and see.

Breaking taboos can radically shift the way you think about your story.  Destroy something that has become sacred and see where it takes you.  How does it affect other pieces of the story?  What could you replace it with?  What are the consequences of removing it?

Map out the trail of destruction.

I'm not saying you should actually throw out every portion of your writing that gives you problems.  You're not changing your manuscript; you're merely speculating.  Sometimes, you find that the pillar you thought was a vital support structure is merely decorative.  You can take it out and the story will stand.

Other times you realize you really, really want this element to stay--losing it would drain some of the life out of your story.  By all means, keep it.  One of the points of this exercise is to clarify what's absolutely essential and what's not.

But the interesting thing is, by threatening your taboos, your mind is forced to move in a completely different direction, which may in turn provide you with all sorts of new ideas.  Take the new ideas, stitch them with the old, and watch the patchwork transform into something original and beautiful.

Ignore It

Not every problem needs solving.

If it's a little thing, no one may even notice.  Sometimes that critical part of your brain zeroes in and nitpicks on minor flaws.  These obsessions suck up valuable time.  Be efficient.  Just move on.

Sometimes I find that when I go forward the solution just magically appears.  When you move from looking at a single detail to the whole landscape, your perspective shifts.  You understand where the piece fits into the larger picture and a solution arrives in a flash of insight.

Hindsight is 20/20--make it work for you!

* * *

Next week, I'll continue with the final installment of "Brainstorming Strategies," which is using brainstorming to think up entirely new material.  See you next time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Weekly Update: 5-24-13

May is ending.  This is bad news for my spring goals.  I have exactly one week to finish the last chapter in my novel.  In theory, I should be midway through carefully polishing each precious word of my manuscript.  But the last draft I did turned out awful, so now I have to rip my story apart at the seams.  I have exactly one week to finish this before my (self-imposed) deadline looms.  Now the pressure begins.

I got four subbing jobs this week, and three of them were in math.  I never particularily hated math in school.  In fact, I like the flow of logic to algebra and geometry.  But I can't seem to explain it to save my life.  Also, I had Statistics and Calculus, both of which I never learned.  So there I stand before the students, admitting to my utter lack of knowledge and asking them to muddle through it as best they can.  They get noisier and noisier, and I withdraw to my desk to shuffle papers, bored and useless.  The students are waiting for summer and so am I.

Interestingly enough, some have asked about my writing.  I have a fantasy that one day when I'm published, they'll see my name at the bookstore and be like, "Hey, that was my teacher!"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 2: "I Can't Identify My Problem"


Last week, we looked at all the different ways a writer could get stuck and how brainstorming might work as a solution.  We examined three core problems: being unable to identify the precise issue holding back your writing, identifying the problem but being unable to think of a solution, and just not having enough material to work with.  This week, we tackle the first troubled area.

The Problem 

At this point, you don't even want to look at your writing.  You're frustrated, you're suffering from soul-tearing angst, you have a bad case of writer's block.  You'll happily brainstorm if it means not having to actually write (or look at) your manuscript.  In short, you can't actually identify what's wrong with your writing, but you know you're stuck and would like to get out of the bog as soon as possible.


Take a deep breath.  Put on calming music.  Have a snack.  Get yourself into a relaxed state of mind and then get ready to confront the problem head-on.  These are some strategies for brainstorming your way back into that old excitement--or at the very least, a tolerable level of writer's angst.

Strategy #1: Rant

Get out a notebook and a freshly sharpened pencil or pen.  Now write down everything you absolutely hate about your manuscript.  Rip it apart like a film critic slashing away at a B movie.  Don't stop writing if you start losing steam.  Be thorough.  If you can't fill a minimum of three pages, you aren't really trying.

All done?

Good.  Now, hopefully, in the process you should have either:

a. started to identify the underlying problems of your manuscript
b. discovered the story isn't half as bad as you thought
c. realized some of the psychological issues holding you back
d. burned off negative emotion and come to a calmer state

If none of the above has happened, keep on ranting until it does.

Strategy #2: Play the "Why?" Game

The "Why?" Game is what children play to drive their parents crazy.  But did you know the opposite is true?  You can talk yourself back into sanity by constantly asking questions.  Hey, it worked for Socrates.  It can work for you.  So try it out.  Let the crazy, frustrated part of your psyche hold a dialogue with the calm, rational, question-asking fragment of your brain.

Here's how such a conversation might look.

Crazy Writer: (gnashing teeth and pulling hair)  "I hate myself!  I'm a horrible, horrible writer!"
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: "Because my story sucks."
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: "Well, for starters, my main character is boring and stupid and I hate her."
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: (Slowly starting to regain sanity) "Because she's become very one-dimensional.  She started off as very active, but now it seems like she's just letting everything happen to her.  And when she does make decisions they're stupid."
Sane Writer: (Nodding wisely)  "So if you know these decisions are stupid why do you let her make them?"
Not-so-Crazy Writer: "Well, I feel like the plot has to go in a certain direction.  If she doesn't make these decisions, the plot won't work."
Wise Writer: "Then what can we do to either justify her decision or otherwise slightly alter the situations without changing the whole plot?"

And suddenly we're getting somewhere.

Strategy #3: Read Your Writing 

It sounds obvious, I know, but if you are in the throes of frustration, this may be the last thing you want to do.  You avoid looking at your previous work, because you can't bear its awfulness.  The thing is, half the time the so-called "awfulness" is hype and pre-mature judgement.  So face your fears.  Print out a copy of a chapter (so you aren't tempted to change it).  Choose a time and space where you feel relaxed.  And get to reading.

I tend to read each of my chapters twice.  The first time, I just do a quick skim, just to remind myself wat's happening and see what I can and cannot understand.  The second time I go through, page by page, and write down all the things I like and all the things I dislike.  I try to do this as objectively as possible, like a reader in a critique group.  This means, and I cannot emphasize this enough, WRITE DOWN THE GOOD STUFF!

While it's nice to know what you need to improve upon, it's also important to identify the strongest points of your writing, the cornerstones upon which can erect new structures.  As a bonus, this will help to salvage some of your self-esteem and save your passion for writing.

Strategy #4: Seek Advice

If ever you get to the point where you can no longer see the good in your work or critique your writing in a (mostly) objective way, your best bet may be to get someone else to give you their honest opinion.  Seek an editor, a mentor, a critique group, or maybe even a #1 fan who'll throw their love at your story unconditionally.

Information is also key, when the problem is building up a particular skill.  For example, in high school, I knew that my prose work and description were not up to par, but I had no idea how to bring my writing up another level.  Taking classes and reading books helped me develop these skills.  Knowledge in general can give you confidence to trust your insticts.  Eventually, you'll be able to figure out what works for you and what doesn't.

* * *

That's all for Part 2.  Next time: Now that you know exactly what the problem is, how do you find a solution?  Read Part 3 to find out.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Weekly Update: 5-18-13

When my grandma sleeps, her mouth shuts and stretches down into a deep frown, not angry or sad, but skull-like, somehow.  During these times, I stand by her bed and watch her chest, making sure it rises and falls, because I'm terrified she could end up dying.  That's my worst fear.  That she'll pass away on my watch.  That I'll be the one to discover her dead.   At night, I have the baby monitor on, and I can't sleep, listening to the static, because I'm so worried about what I'll hear.

I'm not sure how aware she is that she's dying.  Sometimes, she seems to think she'll recover.  But there are hints she knows.  She told me, just today, that she wants to be cremated in her favorite green jacket with the names of all her grandchildren.  I don't know how I feel yet.  I haven't really sat down and tried to express it.  I feel like I have to soothe everyone and be strong.  I don't mind this.  I know everyone is okay for me to cry and break down, but I don't feel ready to do it, not yet.

I have been lazy this week, which probably has something to do with me being stressed.  On Wednesday and Thursday, I sat and watched all 54 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  It was an awesome series, and I tend to easily get addicted to good stories.  But I think, in this case, I let myself get addicted, because it serves as an escape.  My mind gets obsessed with something, allowing me to detatch from the frustrating or overwhelming aspects of life.  I've been feeling the need to detatch a lot lately, and I'm not sure why.

Anyway, be warned if, in the weeks to come, some of my blogs revolve around Avatar.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 1: Finding Where You're At

Brainstorming Strategies for Any Writing Problem!

What Is Brainstorming?

Spitballing, note-taking, thinking outside the box.  Brainstorming is taking time at the start of a project (or any other rough patch) to come up with new ideas and sort out which to use and how to apply them.  Most of us have been subjected to this process since elementary school.  We'd squish our desks together and try to come up with stuff that didn't get us laughed at, all the while a teacher circled the room, telling us there were no wrong ideas.

But in fiction-writing, more often than not, you're working alone.  No teacher, no peer group.  Just you and the blank page.  You have a story to tell, but something keeps you from going forward.  So you pull out a blank notebook and try to generate new ideas and solutions.  This is brainstorming for the writer.

Simply put, brainstorming is daydreaming with a purpose.

Why Should I Brainstorm?

Let me tell you a secret.  When I first began work on my epic fantasy novel, I refused to brainstorm.  I thought it was a big waste of time.  More than that, I didn't think it actually counted as writing.  I was afraid I'd get caught in a note-taking trap and never actually write.  So I diligently sat at my computer desk in 110 degree heat, typing and typing, no matter how often I got stuck or how little I had to say.

Eventually, I grew to hate my story.

I don't want that to happen to you.  I want you to use every tool in your writer's kit to get your story working.  And that's what brainstorming is, in the end: a wonderful tool.  Whenever you get stuck, whenever you have a bad feeling in your gut thst something's wrong, whenever you feel lost, whenever you want to write but feel you have nothing to say--brainstorming is there for you.

More simply: Brainstorming is a cure for writer's block.

I have your attention again.  Great.

But brainstorming is sort of a swiss army knife.  There are many different parts and they all have their different uses.   That's why I've come up with different strategies to help you brainstorm.  Hopefully, these strategies will get your mental juices flowing and help you on your writing way.

What Are Good Brainstorming Strategies for Me?

Only you can figure out what really works for you.  But it would be cheating if I left it at that.

In the ten years or so I've been working on my novel, failing to write, getting frustrated, wringing my hands, stomping through the yard, throwing papers aside, crying, screaming, calming down, and picking up my pencil once again, I've stumbled upon certain brainstorming strategies that work for me.  Maybe they'll work for you.  Who knows?  Try it and see.

So what are these strategies?

Well, first things first.  Where exactly are you in the writing process?  Why do you feel the need to brainstorm?   To find out, I've constructed a handy-dandy little quiz, to figure out what brainstorming frame of mind you're in.

Quiz! Quiz! Quiz!

1. How do you feel about your writing?

a. I hate, hate, hate it!  I can't stand looking at it.
b. I like it in general, but this one aspect has been frustrating me.
c. I love it.  It will be the most beautiful, fascinating, wonderful story... once I start writing it.

2. What is your biggest problem with your story?

a. The whole thing.  It's stupid.  Also, I suck as a writer.
b. ______________________________ (Fill in the blank.)
c. There's not enough of it yet.

3. Brainstorming is good for:

a. avoiding looking at my *@#& manuscript!
b. solving a problem.
c. figuring out what to write.

If you picked mostly As: I Can't Identify My Problem

Right now, your gut is telling you something is wrong with your writing.  Unfortunately, you can't figure out where the problem lies so all your anger is spilling out as general (and generalized) frustration.  The good news is that you have lots of passion.  You just need to channel it into something more productive.

If you picked mostly Bs: I Can Identify My Problem

Congratulations!  You know what the problem is--now all you need is help solving it.  You clearly have a great deal of knowledge about your craft, and logic and analyzation are in your corner.  If you can free up your creativity, you may find the solution to your problem in no time flat.

If you picked mostly Cs: I Have Nothing to Work With

You're just starting the writing process and that's okay!  You're powered by enthusiasm and would dearly like to write... if only you knew where to go.  Hang onto that excitement--you're going to need it in the days to come.  Your brainstorming may be ongoing, but keep at it and you'll have plenty of substance for that story.

* * *
In the upcoming sections, I'll discuss brainstorming strategies finely-tuned for each particular problem.  Of course, you're free to use any strategy that works, willy-nilly of where your problem falls.  Part of creativity is using whatever works.  Try new things and adapt to whatever suits your needs. 

Happy brainstorming.

Weekly Update: 5-12-13

Happy Mother's Day!

When I think of my mother, I am forever grateful for all the care and love she's given me.  She was the one to read to me when I was young, to take me to the library, to marvel at my early stories.  I haven't had much money in a while, so today I mopped the floor for her and picked her a bouquet of flowers.

It was a busy week, a productive week.  I finished editing a chapter, got two subbing jobs, cleaned the front room, wrote a chapter of my coffins story, and went up the hill.  Next week, I'm taking care of my grandma. It's been three weeks since I've seen her and she's lost a lot of weight.  She's thin and frail and I wonder if it will be harder taking care of her than last time.  In my father's garden, the roses grow wild; I hack off dead branches when I want to clear my mind.  It's a purging experience.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quick Fiction: Fishing Trip

"Daddy," said the little boy, "how can we go fishing when there's no water?"

"We'll make water," the father explained.  "Watch and you'll see."

The sand in the desert stretched long and flat, barren of any tree or bush.  The father put down his saddlebag and took out a trowel.

"Now watch," he told his son.

He scooped up a clump of dirt.  As the trowel hit the ground, there came a mighty crack and the earth split open.  Sand fell away in a round circle; a deep crater appeared in the once-flat land.  The little boy's eyes shone.

"Watch," the father said again.

He took a flask from his saddlebag and poured a single drop into the crater.  A fountain sprang up from the sand, spraying white jets into the sky.   The little boy laughed.  Soon deep blue water filled the crater.


The father picked up a single egg, luminescent as a pearl, and dropped it into the water.  A huge rainbow fish leapt out of the lake, its scales shining like oil swirls in puddles.  The little boy clapped.  Other fish followed the rainbow giant, frisking and splashing all along the surface, churning the water into waves.

"It is done."  The father smiled and closed his saddlebag.  "Now we fish." 

--April 6, 2013

I wrote this story in about five minutes based on a photo of a boy and a man with fishing poles out in the desert.  This was a prompt for my writer's club.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Weekly Update: 5-3-13

A funny thing happened around rejection #20.  My story actually got a critique.  By now, I'm so used to getting generic "We're-not-interested-but-thanks-for-submitting" that getting actual feedback from (several) editors rather took me by surprise.  Of note was that they felt my main character did not have much of an emotional center and that he didn't fully realize he was making a deal with the devil until it was already done.

All in all, I take this as a good sign.  I'm making progress.

As the messiness of April gives way to May, I'm trying to get myself back onto a routine.  But to be honest, what I really want right now is a vacation.  I feel restless.  I want to travel.  I want to play.  My mind keeps calling up images of far-off lands and I wonder if I'll ever get there or if my one chance to go abroad has already been spent.  Although, at this point, I'd settle for a week without writing.  I'm coming to the end and I really, really just want to be done, throw my papers in the air, and scream, "School's out forever!"  How I wish.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

NaPoWriMo Bonus: 5 Haikus

Small Poem

I'd teach you how to
write a personal poem
if I knew myself.


a light touch, your head trembles
back inside your shell.


Every time I puff
a dandelion's white head
I forget to wish.

Writing Poems

Writing poems eases
anxiety.  Tomorrow
suffering returns.

Last Year's Blossoms

Already the charms
of last year's cherry blossoms 
have been forgotten.

--April 4, 2013
These are poems I wrote earlier this month that I never got to post.