Cultivating Creativity

On today’s Wednesday Words, I’m mostly giving you other people’s words, not my own. I want to share some recent blog posts related to creativity. Enjoy!

First, Roz Morris, in her Nail Your Novel blog, posted her inspiring Writer’s Manifesto for 2017: Take Your Imagination Seriously. We’re writers! Imagination is our main tool and purpose, but we tend to be sheepish about it. This is all just pretend, after all. But no, Morris says – we have to step up and welcome our imagination, fight for it, be proud of it. Amen! So now I’m all fired up to get serious about imagination. But how?

Here’s how: 8 Ways to Improve Creativity, posted by Beth Nelan on the Writer’s Edit blog. She gives a series of specific techniques that can make any of us more creative. They range from the simple action of looking up (and around) to take in more of the world than we usually do, to more involved actions like taking courses or traveling the world. Yes, these are excellent ideas that can give any of us a creativity boost.

Coincidentally, I just discovered a blog aimed at my day job, but with ideas that any of us can use: The Creative Professor. Risa Stein posts frequent messages about creativity in the classroom. I can use them in how I teach, but they are also valuable in my writing as well. Here’s the most recent post as of right now: Crappy Pictures are Awesome. She talks about how fearful we all are that others are judging us, and our failures will be on display for all to see. Better to keep our thoughts to ourselves, stick just to what’s safe and expected, right? This kills creativity. Don’t worry if your pictures, or your ideas, seem crappy. I’m reminded of a frequent exhortation from a choral director I know: “Be right or be wrong, but be bold!”

How do you nurture your creativity? What helps you take it seriously? How can you make sure to do more of that in the weeks and months to come? Pick a creativity-bolstering activity and make a pledge to do more of that.

Professor’s Prerogative

I’m exercising a professor’s prerogative and not giving you any meaningful Wednesday Words this week, because classes just started on Monday and I’m CRAZY with the start of the semester! I’ll be back next week, I promise (I already know what I’ll write, but just haven’t had time to do it justice.) So I beg for patience, and thank you for your attention.

Oh, and the update on the 10-minutes-a day promise: That I DID do this week. Not much more than 10 minutes in any given day, and I’ve only re-written about 1/3 of a chapter this week, but it’s something. I feel like I’m moving ahead, at least a little.

Vanilla Villains: The Antagonist’s Arc

This week’s installment of Wednesday Words has to do with the antagonist, the person or situation that blocks the protagonist’s progress toward his or her goals. One of the accepted truths is that antagonists must be as fully-drawn as the protagonists, and must have their own goals and motivations besides simply being evil. (See blog posts by Mary Jaksch and Janice Hardy that make this point.) This had me worried. In my WIP, there is a hierarchy of antagonists the heroes have to face and defeat:

  • A human who has sold out to work toward evil goals. His motivation is made pretty clear. He sees this as his best chance to survive under the rule of the evil forces.
  • A nonhuman creature that manifests in fairly human guise (though with a slippery, shape-shifting appearance). She is scary and dangerous, but seems to have no goals of her own except to serve the whims of her evil master. The closest she comes to independence is when she points out that some of her master’s actions have made it more difficult to reach some of its other goals.
  • The ultimate evil, which is a magical power that rules without self-restraint, focused only on its own pleasure. This being is faceless and shadowy. The protagonists know of it through rumor and glancing contacts, and don’t actually confront it until the climax of the story.

So here’s my problem. Only one of these antagonists has a real, comprehensible motivation, and he’s the most minor of them. The others are, really, just … evil. They are explicitly incomprehensible, because they are entities from a separate, magical dimension where nothing matters but the wishes of those ultimate beings. We don’t know what they actually are or where they get their power. They don’t care about us except that they use humans to fulfill their basest urges. For instance, they may enslave armies of humans and make them fight against each other in wars or gladiatorial contests just because they like to watch.

Is that enough to make a fully-rounded antagonist? Is that really something I need?

Here’s something that helps give me my confidence back. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that don’t have goals beyond power for its own sake. For example, there’s Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. He lost his corporeal form when he lost the One Ring, and was finally destroyed entirely when the One Ring was unmade. During the Lord of the Rings story sequence Sauron is a noncorporeal manifestation of power and evil, kind of like my magical enemies. J.R.R. Tolkein was able to pull this off. I don’t have a tenth of his experience, imagination, or talent, but just possibly it’s within my reach to do the same.

Here’s something else. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that aren’t sentient entities at all. The most famous example of this is Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, where the unnamed protagonist battles against the unforgiving cold of the Yukon Territory and eventually is overcome by it. A more recent example is Andy Weir’s book that became a Matt Damon film: The Martian. Here the antagonist is the planet Mars. In both these stories the antagonist doesn’t care about the protagonists at all and can’t be said to have a “motivation” in any real sense. Still, they are wonderful stories with strong protagonists we root for. Can I achieve the same thing?

So I’m back to my story with renewed conviction. Yes, an antagonist can be something impartial and implacable, like a planet or the weather. Yes, an antagonist can be focused solely on accumulating power, like a magical demon lord. So with these examples before me, I can focus on why my protagonists are doing to overcome the obstacles before them.

What are your favorite antagonists? Are any of them faceless powers of evil, or impersonal forces to be overcome? Can this kind of antagonist work for you?

Daily Writing Update: As I promised, here’s a report on my pledge to write 10 minutes each day. In the last week I only missed one day. Six out of seven is okay, but I’m determined to get every day this week!

Me and the 1%

This is not a political or economic post – it’s this week’s Wednesday Words. I’m reblogging something I read today on the 10 Minute Novelist that really resonated with me, about how you can dream big in just 10 minutes a day. I did some math and found that 10 minutes is 1% of a nominal 16-hour waking day. Can’t I manage to devote just 1% of my time to this writing thing I claim to be committed to? You would think so, wouldn’t you?

I’m not one to make new year’s resolutions. Why commit to an important change just because we managed to get through another solstice? But this is something that I really should be able to do, even in the midst of a very busy life. Just 10 minutes a day. That’s not much; but it will be enough.

So here’s my pledge to myself: I’ll schedule at least 10 minutes of my day, every day, to working on my novel, starting today. I pledge to do this for at least three months, after which I’ll review what happened to see whether I want to renew the promise. I’ll post my success or failure to live up to this plan each week as a footnote on the Wednesday Words message. You’ll be my witnesses, which is important because knowing I have witnesses may help me stick with my promise.

Here’s to becoming part of the 1%. What do you think – want to join me there?

Visit the Shark – Do You Know Janet Reid?

For my first Wednesday Words post of the new year, I’m going to point you toward someone else’s  fantastic words. This isn’t really a reblog because I’m not highlighting a specific post, but if you’re interested in writing or publishing you really should be following Janet Reid’s blog. Janet is an agent with New Leaf Literary and Media, and she also takes the time to post daily messages aimed at helping writers navigate the tricky waters of the publishing world. Janet describes calls herself a shark and her many followers (who call themselves Reiders) refer to the welcoming, supportive atmosphere at her blog as the Reef. This is one of the few places on the Web where I encourage you to read the comments! As a literary agent, what Janet knows best is the process of querying agents and securing representation, so that’s what her blog mostly focuses on. She also runs the extremely helpful Query Shark, where she reads and comments extensively on queries. Before you submit your first query to any agent whatsoever, you should read ALL the entries on the Query Shark (285 as of today) to learn what works and why.

So, writers who hope for publication, go visit the Shark. She doesn’t really bite. Well, not TOO hard.

2016 Blog in Review

This week’s Wednesday Words is a look back at the past year on the blog, and a peek at the crystal ball to try and anticipate what might be going on here in 2017. First, the look back.

I focused quite a lot on the weekly photo challenge from WordPress this past year. I participated all but six of them (I’ve got the last one of the year all planned, but haven’t posted it yet). These photo challenges have accounted for all of my top five most visited posts of the year:

  • Temporary Beauty, about finding the joy in the tiny, evanescent details of each season and each time.
  • Look Up, about how often we miss the unexpected just because we keep our heads down and don’t look up.
  • Looking for Letters in All the Strange Places, about the delightful challenge of searching for letter forms in the ordinary things around me.
  • Happy Outline Guy, about seeing a prosaic warning cone in a new way and getting a laugh from it.
  • Banister Detail, about the elegant curve at the bottom of the stair at the George Eastman Museum, which captured its grace in a single detail.

Looking back at this list of top posts I see a theme. They are all about opening our eyes to see things in a different direction, or close up, or in a new way. It’s not surprising that a challenge focused on photography would inspire thoughts and images about seeing things in a new way, but it also reflects my way of looking at things through the camera. For instance, I didn’t take any large panoramic photos at the George Eastman Museum, showing the spread of house and grounds, but focused on intimate details like that curve of the banister. It’s just the way I see things when taking photos.

Looking beyond the individual posts, I find that by far my busiest month in 2016 was April, and that was all down to another challenge: the A to Z Blogging Challenge. It was my first time participating in that challenge, and it was overwhelming but a whole lot of fun. I chose the theme of haiku puzzles: each day I had a haiku that referred to a word that started with the letter of the day. Visitors were invited to try to guess the word, and people got every single one. The most viewed letter was B (you’ll have to visit the post to see the haiku, the guesses, and the right answer). The most comments were made to the letter D, which tells me my audience has a scientific bent that makes me really happy.

So, overall, how did I do? It’s useful to look at what I predicted for 2016 a year ago, to see what I got right and what I didn’t.

  • I said I’d have my book revised and polished by now. I don’t. Not even close. I’m part way through the first revision pass, with the help of my critique partners, but it hasn’t been going as smoothly as I hoped. Not because there’s a problem with the writing, but a problem with time. I know, if I made it more of a priority I would be able to find the time, but it just hasn’t worked out that way. I have excuses, of course. Two big ones are that my daughter got engaged early in 2016 so I’ve been digging into wedding planning, and that I took over as chair of my academic department at Monroe Community College in June, a big job that takes a lot of attention. So, yeah. But still!
  • I said I’d do more reblogging and more essays on the blog, and I haven’t really lived up to that. I only reblogged twice in 2016, and both of them were related to gender issues in writing (see them here and here). I still want to do more of this. There are so many terrific blogs out there, I’d love to spread the word! On the other hand, I’ve added a new thing that I didn’t anticipate: Wednesday Words. I put this in because I was worried about losing the blog’s focus on writing. It also pretty much doubled the number of posts I make on a regular basis, which is good for the blog.
  • I said I’d get and give more regular feedback, and this one I’ve lived up to. I found a terrific critique group that meets twice a month to share work and get feedback. These people are good at finding the balance between encouragement and honest criticism. They are quick to point out where I missed the mark, while celebrating the places where I got it right, or mostly right. Or kinda right. (I take my celebrations where I can get them.)

So what are my goals for 2017? I’m going to double down on the first two, that I didn’t get done this time, and then add a couple more.

  • I will push through the first round of revision for my work in progress and maybe get into a second round of polishing. I have to acknowledge that I can’t move ahead as fast as I’d like, but I’m not stopping!
  • I’ll keep doing the photo challenge most every week, missing just a few here and there. The thinking that’s involved in selecting or creating a photo that fits each week’s theme is most of the challenge, and I love doing it. I also enjoy seeing the different directions other people go with the theme each week. There is so much creativity out there!
  • I will keep the Wednesday Words feature on the blog, but branch it out to talking about more than my own writing. It could be a place for some reblogs that have to do with writing, or reviews of books, or general essays on books and writing. Something word-related, every Wednesday.
  • I will definitely do the A to Z Challenge again this year. I have debated what to do as a theme, thinking over all kinds of ideas, but I’ve decided to stick with what was so successful this year and do haiku puzzles again. They were fun to do and garnered a lot of interest, so why not? Maybe I’ll be bored with them after next time and do something different in 2018, but for now, I’m sticking with it.
  • Oh – and I’ll dance at my daughter’s wedding. That’s a great thing to look forward to!

So that’s it – a look back at 2016, and a look ahead to 2017.

How about you? What has 2016 meant to you? What will you preserve into the next year, and what will you toss out and replace? What goals have you set, and how will you go about reaching them?

Happy New Year!

Drawing Characters Like Picasso – the Telling Detail

picasso-dogPicasso did this so well – sketch out an entire character with just a few lines, as he did with this lovable dog. As writer, we want to do the same thing! We want our readers to see our characters as complete, three-dimensional people, but don’t want to spend a lot of tedious description to make this happen. How do we do this?

I’m just a beginner on this path, but there are a few times when I think I’ve gotten it somewhat right. The main thing is to pick one or two details that are specific to just that one person, and put them into the dialogue or into the action of the scene. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” rule – make the description happen as an action, not just words. We want the detail to do the telling, without actually telling explicitly. Clear, right? Maybe some examples from my work in progress can help.

Naia is what one of my critique partners called a “happy Valkyrie.” She is the primary fighter of the group, wielding a mean sword, but she has a ton of fun doing it. That sentence is description, telling you about her, but that’s not how the information is presented in the story. For instance, here’s what happens just after Naia fought and defeated some really scary other-worldly creatures. Kay, the narrator, is ranting a bit about how she doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she says “There are monsters out back!”

Naia interrupted, “Were monsters.” She tossed the wadded-up paper towel in a bin and celebrated her shot a pumped fist.

In that brief moment, Naia shows that she’s proud of defeating the monsters, that she didn’t find it particularly stressful, and that she’s cheerfully competitive, even about tossing away the paper towel. Not bad for 20 words.

Here’s an example with a minor character, one for whom we never even learn a name. Kay comes across him as he is heading off into the woods directly toward some similar monsters, but he doesn’t know the danger he faces. She tries to stop him, but it doesn’t go well. The young man accuses her of representing the oppressive adult power structure.

“I don’t care what you say.” He tossed his head and the black curtain of hair fell back perfectly over one eye. He’d paid a lot of money for that haircut. “I can’t keep on living like this.”

It was a proud moment for me when a critique partner casually referred to this character as the “emo teen,” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when creating him. I could have describe him that way explicitly, but instead I had him express his attitude in his own words, and in the toss of his head. The expensive haircut, ostentatiously covering one eye, cements the picture of a whiny, over-privileged adolescent who thinks the world is out to get him. Unfortunately, at this moment he’s close to right about that.

One more example. Alex, an important character in the team, is tough and demanding. Kay often thinks of her as acting like a school principal, and this shows in her actions and her speech. There’s one moment early on, though, that’s different, that hints at a whole area of motivation we don’t see otherwise. They try to rescue someone from the monsters but don’t succeed. After the fight is over,

Alex knelt beside the boy I had tried to save. She stroked his face gently, touched the old scar on his hand, bowed her head. Miss Martinet herself, grieving for this small stranger.

We come back to this well-hidden bit of Alex’s psyche later in the story, but for now there’s just this one sentence allowing one small peek. It explains something about why the others stick with Alex despite how prickly she is. There’s no explicit flag here (Look! She really cares about these people!). There are just her actions, for the reader to interpret.

As I work through my revision, I try to watch out for those places where I try to use a big, broad brush to paint a character, telling about them rather than showing them. For instance, just this week I flagged a place where I described a character as “crusty outside but soft inside, like the bread she baked.” This is too direct a description. I need to show her being crusty but soft, and once I show that I won’t need to tell about it. If I’m vigilant, I may be able to find and dig out most of these descriptive slip-ups, and replace all that telling with a telling detail or two.

It Takes a Critique Group

Today’s Wednesday Words topic is about the value of critique partners in the process of world building. When writing fantasy or science fiction, as I do, we need to create settings that are different in important ways from the reader’s normal experience. My story is set in the familiar contemporary world, until it is invaded by creatures from a parallel dimension of magic. I needed to establish my ideas about how the magic works in that parallel world, and how it interacts with our own world when they come into contact. I thought I had that all figured out before I even began drafting last summer, and I smoothed out the last wrinkles (ha!) in the first draft. Now, as I’m going through the revision, I have critique partners who read and comment on each chapter, and I’m amazed by how useful this is. It may take a village to raise a child, but for me it takes a critique group to raise a novel.

My critique partners ask the questions my readers would ask. Occasionally this is a question I planned to leave open at that point and answer later, but more often it’s just something I never thought of. There’s only so much leeway they will give me to wave my hand and say, “It’s magic!” The most wonderful questions are those that grow out of the facts I’ve already established, following them to logical conclusions that take me in new directions. Here’s one example: Early in the story I establish that time in this other dimension flows sideways to our own. What this means practically is that when someone is kidnapped into the other dimension and then returns, they come back at the same moment they left, even if they’ve been over there for decades. This is a cool idea and leads to some fun with verb tenses. However, later on I have my merry band of protagonists trapped in a bubble of this alternate reality that’s landed here, in our world, trying to get out. My critique partners reminded me that they should be worried about what’s happening to time out there. When they finally do get out, will it be the same moment they were trapped? Will it be a hundred years later? This is something they should have thought of, but since I didn’t, they didn’t. Without my critique partners I would have left that interesting complication on the table.

Writers, how do you get an outside perspective on your work? Do you have partners or groups you share with? What about online organizations like Scribophile or Absolute Write: have you tried them? If so, what was your experience? I’d like to expand the feedback I get, so any suggestions would be welcome.

Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Today’s Wednesday Words installment is about gun safety: the proper techniques for loading and handling Chekhov’s Gun. This is based on advice from Anton Chekhov, a highly skilled writer of novels, plays, and short stories, who is quoted as saying: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the various elaborations and variations on this idea in the entry on TV Tropes.) Chekhov was talking about economy: don’t pad your work with miscellaneous junk that’s not going to be useful. I’m turning it upside down today and talk about how I’ve handled the minor Chekhovian items in my WIP.

As I worked through my first draft, I came again and again on situations where I needed something to be there, but I hadn’t set it up ahead of time. Rather than stop now to describe the lamp that’s now being chopped up for parts, I recognize that this is a pop-pistol version of Chekhov’s gun. I need to hang that puppy on the wall at an earlier point, so I can now just reach up and grab it.

There are lots of techniques for loading that gun. I’m some of my readers are using Scrivener, and you might be able to post information about how to do this effortlessly in that system. Everyone I know loves it, but it’s never clicked with me. I do my writing the old fashioned way, with a quill pen in word-processing files, so here’s how I handle it. As I’m reaching up for a gun that’s not there, I add a marginal comment right then that I need to set this up. Later, when I’m looking back at the work for the last few days, I see that note and poke around in earlier chapters until I find a good place to plant it, and I drop another marginal note at that point, something like: “Describe lamp – you’ll need it in Chapter 8.”

Here’s a specific example. For reasons I don’t want to explain now (you’ll have to read it when it’s published *grin*), my main character Kay has to be able at a climactic point in the story to reach into a kind of space she can’t really see to find a weapon. That invisible, almost intangible space is the ghostly remnant of the pantry in the kitchen of the hotel where she works. To set this up I have the following passage, which will appear on roughly Page 3 of the book:

I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal. Still, I had to be careful, because there were some steak knives in the tray and they had to go in the drawer the right way ’round. When I first started here I earned a rap on the knuckles for getting some of the knives backward. “Some day,” Jana said, “you will reach in there, going quickly, looking not so much.” She managed to glare down her nose at me, which isn’t easy for someone who didn’t reach my shoulder. “One knife is backward, and you will maybe wish someone had been more careful.” I bowed my head and apologized sweetly, because losing a job in two days would have been a record, even for me, and she let me off with just the glare.

I’m pleased with this passage because it does several things at once, which every paragraph in the book should do to earn its keep. Here’s what I was trying to accomplish in these 154 words:

  • Grounding the action in the present time, showing what Kay (the narrator) is doing at the time when things start going seriously awry.
  • Illuminating something of Kay’s personality with those last few lines about how losing her job so quickly would have been a record, “even for me.” It says she’s not someone who is known for sticking around for the long haul.
  • Showing Jana’s character, in that she’s a stickler for procedures, isn’t above rapping a new employee’s knuckles, is considerably shorter than Kay, and speaks English with an accent (I’ve written before about writing an accent).
  • Loading that gun. When Kay realizes later that she can reach into the back wall of that pantry, hidden though it is with magical glamour, she knows just where to find a knife. At that time she will spare a thought of thanks for Jana’s insistence on doing things right.

If you think about Chekhov’s Gun and how it works in your writing, then when you reach up it’s there — and BOOM!

How have you handled situations like this in your writing? Share your ideas with the rest of us.

Writing Diversity – Danger or Opportunity?

There’s a lot being said these days about the importance of including people from many different corners of humanity in our writing (for example, see this essay from Daniel José Older on Writing the Other). Like many writers, I’m coming from a position squarely in the middle of society: white, middle-class, cis-gendered, educated, American, Christian. How can I bring different kinds of people into my stories, without in some way trying to co-opt or trivialize other people’s stories? Here are three ways the characters in my current story break from my own experience, and how I’m coping with it (with varying degrees of success).

  • My main character, Kay, is very much like me. Aside from being decades younger than I am, the main way she differs from me is that she’s a drifter with no fixed address, someone who bounces from job to job and mostly lives out of her car. So not quite in the comfortable middle-class world that is mine, but not far out. I have no trouble imagining her and clearly delineating her world view. One of my critique partners made me very happy when he mentioned casually that a particular event would be particularly disturbing to Kay, since she’s one who always wants to get out and run. That’s exactly how I think of her, and it’s nice to know some of that came across to this reader.
  • Two of the important secondary characters, Naia and Alex, are in a lesbian relationship. That’s the way the characters presented themselves to me, and I’m very comfortable with them this way. So comfortable that their relationship is not mentioned in the story at all for the first ten chapters, because there was so much happening fast and furiously that it just never came up. Finally, at a peak of tension, when Naia goes out of their place of relative safety to scout for trouble, Alex tells her to be careful and they exchange a kiss before Naia says, “Always am. I’ll be back.” My critique partners loved this, finding it a quick way to emphasize the danger and heighten the reader’s emotional involvement. The jury is still out on whether I should go back and their involvement clearer in earlier sections, or whether this can be a good place to reveal it. I think I may compromise and drop some hints earlier that, in retrospect, indicate their relationship, but have Kay not pick up on it because, seriously, there are Other Things Going On!
  • Naia has another characteristic of the Other: she’s Black. This is the area where I’m on the shakiest ground, and not at all confident about how I’m handling it. There are two reasons for her ethnicity. One is that I’m one of the many people concerned about increasing representation for people of color in books, so I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. The other is that one thing I do as I’m developing characters is search the Internet for photos that seem to fit the person I’m imagining, which I can look at as I’m writing to keep me grounded in their different voices and visions. The photo I found for Naia happens to be a Black woman, lovely and confident, with a big happy smile and a mop of unapologetic dreads. She’s the kind of woman who goes out to slaughter horrible monsters from another dimension with a big freaking sword and enjoy it. But my critique partners scolded me for describing her “coffee-colored” skin as a cliché. They ask me why I’ve named her ethnicity but not the ethnicity of anyone else in the party. They point out the times when I’ve mentioned another character’s eye or hair color, but not hers. I find myself described by Rule 2 in the article about Writing the Other that I linked to above: I suck. Naia’s ethnicity is feeling, to me and therefore to my readers, as something glued on, not an integral part of who she is, and quite possibly patronizing.

How do I move forward? There are two paths I can take. I can buckle down and do a better job of bringing Naia’s ethnicity to life. To do that I’d need to do a thread analysis in revision, where I search for every mention of Naia and track how she’s introduced, how she’s described, how she acts, and how others react to her. I’d have to make this whole thread consistent, with her ethnicity integral but not central. Then I’d ask my friends and colleagues who are themselves women of color to read those sections and give me honest reactions. My other choice is to acknowledge that I’m not ready to write a convincing, authentic person of color, and backtrack to make her white, like me. That feels like a failure, but it might be the most honest choice.

I’m wrestling with this concern right now, and will be until I finish this revision pass, at least through the end of the year. Then I’ll have to make a choice.

I’d love to hear what you think. Any advice will be most helpful!