Weekly Musing: Living Creatively

My own creativity is something I finally started listening to when I was already into adulthood. What I mean is that is when I started giving in to urges to just do something, anything, to get ideas, thoughts, emotions, my voice out I always held back. Eventually I figured out it to let it out. And guess what? I think it has made my life so much better.

Creativity has been something that has always fascinated me. Even as a kid I remember watching behind-the-scenes specials about how Fraggle Rock was made, how HBO’s opening sequence before each show was made, or special effects behind movies. The older I got the more I was still fascinated by how people came up with their ideas for books, movies, songs, art, whatever and however people expressed themselves. I am one of those people who still buys DVDs mainly for the special features and commentaries. I love searching for interviews with my favorite musicians and writers whenever they talk about their process and inspiration.

I was jealous because these people had managed to tap into a side of them I hoped I had. Deep down there was a voice desperate to get out but I couldn’t figure out what my avenue would be. I can’t draw; my stick figure people look like they have orthopedic problems. I can sorta play an instrument but I’m a mediocre musician on a good day. Composing my own songs is out of the question and my singing voice is best left to the car. I’m okay at taking pictures but not enough to fire up my creativity. Dancing is out as I trip over flat surfaces.

Finally it dawned on me to explore creative writing. After all I was a strong writer in school and had on and off come up with stories, even beginning some. The more I got into writing, not only did I become a happier person, the more I wanted to explore creativity and what fuels it. It has also given me confidence to explore other avenues of creativity.

It’s interesting to see how doing one creative activity can snowball into others. For example, I have always enjoyed cooking, more so when I started going off script. With the exception of baking, an activity I only do around Christmas, I view most recipes as suggestions. If I don’t have a particular spice, I’ll substitute. I like being able to increase or decrease the level of heat in a dish. I love playing around with different flavor combinations especially since I enjoy food from all over the world.

Another example of expanding my creativity is recently I have taken up coloring. Now on the surface this doesn’t sound like much, but for me coloring is a way for me to create art. I never really liked coloring as a kid because I was too busy trying to stay within the lines and color realistic-looking cats and dogs. But with adult coloring books, the designs are abstract so I don’t feel as if I have to conform to the norm which I sorta natural rebel against. Conformity = confinement as far as I’m concerned.

Having different creative outlets benefits my writing. Firstly, I have to concentrate completely on whatever that other activity is. Once my brain loses focus is when I start making mistakes. Secondly, engaging in another form of creativity rests the part of my brain I’ve been using for hours to write. Anyone who thinks using one’s mind isn’t physically exhausting hasn’t really ever used his or her brain. Thirdly, it allows for expressions of emotions and thoughts which simply cannot be express in the written word. This is why music, art, dance, etc. exist.

Perhaps I’m odd but somehow I’m able to turn off my writer’s brain when I do other activities. Or maybe I’m burying whatever issues I’m struggling with subconsciously yet my mind isn’t really “off”. No matter how I do it, the rest refreshes me so that when I turn on my writing brain it opens up the flood gates. I think this might be true for other creative types. I know writers who also paint, draw, or are musicians. There are actors who also sing, dance, or write for fun. Artists who write, make films, or play music as well.

 

Weekly Musing: Take Your Beta Readers to the Max

A term I never heard of before I threw myself into creative writing was Beta Reader. I wondered what this meant. Is it like one of those fighting Beta fishes? How is a Beta Reader different from a critique group? Why do I need one? When do I need one? How does one become one?

Simply put a Beta Reader is a person who reads the complete manuscript of a writer’s novel, novella, screenplay, or play. It is helpful to get feedback early on so that as a writer you can polish the manuscript before sending it out to be published. If you are at this stage with your story then you probably have read and re-read it so much yourself you probably are sick of seeing it.

How is beta reading different from just submitting work to a critique group? For one thing the idea of enlisting a group of Beta Readers is to give them the entire finished product. More often than not critique groups have restrictions on word count and frequency of submissions. While you can give your critique group each chapter at a time, it’s like giving pieces of a puzzle to someone and expecting them to put it together without having all the pieces. It’s also more difficult for members of a critique group to remember what previously happen in the story and see if there has been any character development.

Beta Readers get all the pieces to the puzzle. They get to see that whole picture, from the beginning to the middle to the end, experiencing the journey the reader would take in real time. Thus their feedback is probably a bit more solid than just having piecemeal feedback on a chapter here and there. That’s not to say to never let your critique group see the chapters. There are certainly areas where you know the writing is weaker or you’re struggling with how to write a scene or when you’re first starting the project. This is when your critique group can come in handy with feedback.

So how does one go about choosing Beta Readers? In order for the process to be beneficial, it’s a good idea to pull your Beta Readers from different walks of life. In addition to having a fellow writer or two read your complete work, invite non-writers as well. Fellow writers are looking for certain things but may suffer from tunnel vision. Invite friends and family who frequently read in your story’s genre. This type of reader is looking for certain things that a non-genre Beta Reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on. After all, the majority of book readers are not writers. Good idea to get a feel for how the book reads for the average public. Finally, make sure you pick Beta Readers who is capable of giving constructive criticism.

When you’ve got your readers picked, make sure you give them plenty of time to adequately read your manuscript. This is especially important if the writer is facing a deadline. Even if you aren’t, still give your readers a deadline. After all the revision process is far lengthier than the initial rough draft stage. If you have any specific questions or concerns you’d liked addressed then let your readers know that. Tell your readers who you’d like to receive feedback. Are you okay with a hand written mark-up of the manuscript? Would you prefer an electronic version?

What are the responsibilities of a Beta Reader? People have lives so in addition to providing the most honest and constructive feedback possible, try to get your comments back to the author as soon as possible. When I beta read, the process is slower than my regular critiquing for my writers group and it is much, much slower than when I’m reading for fun. Keep that in the back of your mind when you accept or decline the offer to read. If you notice grammar and spelling mistakes and you feel confident enough, go ahead and note the errors. Naturally there are readers who focus more on this than others so don’t get bogged down too much in checking every single sentence. Remember, you are reading for content mostly. That being said, it can be quite frustrating to be spending more time correcting grammar and spelling, then actually absorbing the story.

 

Asking people to beta read your baby is scary. I get nervous whenever my work is critiqued and at this point I can only imagine how nerve-wracking it’s going to be when my novel is ready enough to be review by others. Be nice to your readers by thanking those who accept the offer as well as those who decline the invitation. Beta Readers, be respectful and honest to the writer. We’re can be fragile creatures and the author has placed a lot of trust in you. Hopefully the experience can be fun and beneficial for both sides.

Weekly Musing: What’s On Your List?

Bucket lists, those things we’d like to do/accomplish/experience before we die. I haven’t put much thought about my bucket list other than a few things. It’s not because of my age and some asinine notion I have a ton of time on this planet. Unlike my spouse, I don’t think I’m immortal and realize I could go at any second.

When it comes to my life as a writer, what would be on my bucket list? This list is different from my goals I’ve set out for myself as it is more fun. As usual, this list isn’t in any particular order.

Research Trips: Not sure if this should be on a bucket list. The reality is research trips are something which are part of the job. At least for the stories I write and intend to write. Unfortunately I have yet to be able to go on one research trip. I was aiming to go on one next year but due to some unforeseen circumstances, that plan got scrapped. From what I understand, research trips help a writer to better understand your characters and their experiences. Plus who wouldn’t want to see more of the world?

Meeting My Favorite Authors: Previously I’ve documented who my favorite authors are. I’m sure over the course of my life this list will change. Authors are probably some of the most approachable of artist types even though writing is a solitary activity. I think it is far easier for a reader or writer to be able to meet, even for a brief few seconds, their favorite authors. No matter how famous or how much money an author has, so many of them still attend conferences, conventions, book signings, and other public events all around the world. Should I ever get a chance to meet any of my favorites, I highly doubt I’ll be able to find my tongue. I’m shy by nature and I’d be in too much awe to say much beyond “You’re awesome!”

Taking a Literary Vacation: I think it would be neat to take a literary vacation. What I mean by that is it would be a fun kind of vacation to visit the hometowns of some of the literary giants. Again, another excuse to travel this time to explore areas which inspired some of the most well-known works in history. Like a research trip, it would be neat to sit and experience what a famous author must have seen or heard or smelled as they wrote. Maybe some of their environment would rub off on me and inspire me to greatness.

I guess that’s it. The list is short but ambitious. The overarching theme with my writer’s bucket list is one where I get the opportunity to travel and see more of the world. Books take us throughout the world, both our own and those of others, so why not explore more of the only one I have easy access to?

 

Weekly Musing: Chaotic Mess

Oh, what a difference a month makes. I have completed the first month of the initial revision round on my historical fiction novel and it has gone a lot differently than I had envisioned. Physically my working space is a mess with papers, folders, and pens strewn about. From a creative standpoint things are also a giant mess. I had no idea just how much I would still be changing my mind. More than once I’ve altered where the story opens. I also decided to replace some character names because I wasn’t honestly never fully on board with the original names I straddled them with.

Issues I knew I’d have to deal with I finally got to and it wasn’t pretty. Most were research related and I got those nailed down. I hope anyway. As I noted above, I have this tendency to change my mind. Fingers cross I’ll let these thing stand for a while. The problem with me and research is not only do I get sucked into a black hole, which I usually enjoy, is I spend probably far too much time double, triple, and quadruple-checking facts.

In the back of my mind I am paranoid should this book get published, if I have even one thing wrong, even if it is something small, I will get blasted for inaccuracy. This is a product of observing and participating in various online discussions. It fatigues and frustrates me to point out nothing will be 100% accurate, especially in fiction. While I’m not the lone voice in this, it still bothers me trying to reason with idiots. Explaining authors can only do the best they can with the information they have falls on deaf ears.

While I can defend and understand what other authors do, it is problematic for me to apply the logic to my own work. I have to be vigilant in telling myself I am in the beginning stages of revision and that I have never revised a novel before. Techniques I apply to short stories have worked but I am also discovering my strategy must be different.

Nothing will be perfect yet I’ve already redone the beginning at least two times and will tackle it a third time before throwing in the towel to move onto the middle. I have re-arranged and re-re-arranged chapters, deleted others, switched chunks of a scene to either earlier or later in the book and even noted scenes I think would be better switched to the other character’s POV. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to condense basic information into a quick, easy-to-read file so I don’t have to keep flipping back to Scrivener.

I have learned that while I may be a naturally organized person with a brain that thrives best on compartmentalization, the other part of my brain, the one which controls creativity, apparently likes the chaos. Perhaps it’s the thrill of creating a giant mess and then working to put it back together into something better. I’m not very nice to myself.

But this chaos vexes me. I’d hoped to be a further ahead on my rewrite; not still stuck at the beginning. Looking ahead to August, it’s going to be a busy month personally. I ponder how much time I will while making sure I pace myself so I don’t fry my creativity. Yet this makes me feel as if I’m pushing myself more and more behind. While I have likened this to an extreme marathon, this first month has me feeling as if I haven’t even gotten off the starting line.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean by Calandra Usher

The Book of Dean is the first book in The Gospels of Cal’eia tetralogy by Calandra Usher. Like the book I reviewed last month, this is also a debut novel although it came out last year. The story centers around Sarah who is on the run from something or someone. She stumbles upon a very odd property in the middle of rural North Carolina which starts her off on a very odd journey. Something is obviously very, very different about Sarah as she can speak and understand horses. One of the four men who live on the property discovers Sarah. When she is about to leave the next morning, an accident forces her to stay until she recovers. Her recovery allows her to and the men to cautiously get to know each other with each side quickly determining none of them are quite human.

The four men, Dean, Fabien, Warren, and Pete, are all very different from each other. Dean is the leader of the group, Fabien is the gourmet cook and joker, Warren is the big teddy bear, and Pete is the serious intellectual. For the most part they accept Sarah right away although they are cagey about seeking medical attention for her after a terrifying accident badly damages her leg. Sarah is okay with this despite the fact she has a difficult time trusting people. She justifies it because she sees auras around people and theirs apparently project they are okay. Sarah also has some other otherworldly capabilities like telepathy, assigning shapes to foods she eats, and has a deep spiritual connection with the world.

The men are able to quickly earn her trust although Pete is the most wary of the four as he realizes something is very different about Sarah and worries about the group being discovered. It bugs him that she was able to find their very large and oddly designed estate in the first place as they intentionally built it in the middle of nowhere. As the leader, Dean trusts Sarah and advises the other men to do the same. Slowly Sarah opens up about herself and questions the men before finally grasping who and what they are. It’s not until the end of the book that who and what Sarah truly is, is revealed thus setting up the next book and presumably is the rest of the series.

Despite this being subtitled The Book of Dean, we really don’t get to know Dean very well. He’s a nice guy, apparently is gorgeous because Sarah keeps telling the reader, and is smart and well-read but then again all of the men hold multiple PhDs in various fields. But that’s it other than an obvious attraction between Sarah and Dean. Despite all this, I didn’t find Dean all that interesting. Out of the group of four men, I found Fabian and Ren the most interesting for very different reasons. Dean was just too perfect and even when there’s a hint of a dark side, something we all have, it’s dropped until the very end when the men’s true identities are clarified.

I also didn’t like Sarah very much. Despite her age being stated as twenty-eight, she comes across as much younger. She’s a caring free-spirit and has this mystical air surrounding her but I found it grating at times to read her ADD-like narrative. Since my spouse has ADD it’s taxing enough having conversations with him that when I read a book I don’t want my lead to narrate that way. Sarah’s story isn’t helped by the first two chapters which are strictly backstory and could have been used later in the story when as it became relevant to the story. There were other chapters that, while had lovely writing and emotion, were distracting from the story itself.

There are little things which are never explained or resolved. For example, the reader is never given the reason when Sarah is still on the run. She initially leaves home around the time she graduates from high school because her mother has passed away but since the book begins when she is twenty-eight, who or what is she still running from? I wonder if this is something that is explained in the next book but more hints or at least letting the reader know, not necessarily the other characters, what is after her. Also, Sarah destroys a valuable object which surprises her and the four men yet again this isn’t explained.

I also felt like there wasn’t any real tension or sense of foreboding throughout the book. I don’t necessarily need a story to be dark and brooding but the whole book and the characters are just too nicey-nicey for me. Even when there are some darker spots, they’re microscopic. The ending, though, I think does hint that perhaps the story will get maybe a tick darker.

Overall, the book didn’t work for me. I wasn’t particular taken with the character of Sarah and felt the mystery surrounding the situation could have been resolved more quickly. I think there was way too much back story that added very little and I think dragged the pacing of the story down. There were also way too many grammatical errors I couldn’t just pass off as a product of how the main character speaks.

I did like some of the otherworldly descriptions and I think Ms. Usher captured the colors and shapes of emotions quite well. I also liked the interaction with the horses and cat because I’m an animal lover and talk to animals. Certainly not in the same way as Sarah, of course, but I appreciate that animals have thoughts, feelings, and unique personalities just like people. Ms. Usher also paints quite a lovely picture and I appreciated reading something different within the fantasy realm.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean two-and-a-half pencils.

 

Weekly Musing: What Is Critical Thinking?

I wanted to touch upon the concept of Critical Thinking as I feel it is something that is unforgivably lacking in society. Everyone’s a critic but does that mean we actually know what critical thinking is and engage upon it? The dictionary definition is that it is a noun meaning disciplined thinking which is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Notice in the definition it doesn’t state an emotional response or opinion. Yet whenever I try to participate in discussions about a book or whatever, I see more and more people believing their opinion counts as critical thinking. Far, far too often criticisms I see are based on emotion, irrational thinking, and personal biases. There’s this aggravating mentality of “I’m right and you’re wrong because…because you just are!” I find this incredibly painful to see. It truly hurts my heart to see people argue, not debate those are two separate things, over a point. Both sides have the critical part down to an ugly art but neither remembers to stop and think.

When examining a piece of literature in an intellectual manner, emotions need to be separated from the analysis. This is difficult because one of the beauties of literature is its ability to make us feel. Whether they’re positive or negative emotions, the written word has a glorious power on our heart. It’s also human nature to be emotional; we are animals after all. Yet our brains are wonderfully evolved to handle this separation.

When it comes to analyzing literature, our head must take center stage. Far, far too often we forget this. In our debates (arguments) we want to prove our interpretation is the only right one. We employ non-critical thinking techniques by calling each other names, claiming someone’s position is stupid or wrong because they don’t agree, and fail to cite any evidence to support our stance. When things get this way it gets no one anywhere; people shut their minds off when they argue and their hearing becomes selective.

I’m not sure how or why this happens and that’s not my focus today. What I want to talk about is encouraging us all to work harder on critical thinking. Look again at the definition of critical thinking and let’s break it down by each of the key parts.

Clear: When analyzing something, is your argument clear? It doesn’t have to be a complicated stance in fact it’s probably better if it is communicated as simply as possible. This makes it easier to stick to the point(s) for all parties involved.

Rational: Is your criticism coming from a place of rational thought or is it based on an emotional response? Often times our emotions are irrational. How many times have you struggled to understand why you feel the way you do at a particular moment? Why does something make you happy today when yesterday it wouldn’t have? Again, employ the gray matter between your ears when analyzing something. Does criticism make logical sense, stripped of my known personal biases as well as emotion? Get in touch with your inner Spock if you will.

Open-minded: This is probably the toughest thing to do. Even more than trying to be rational. Based on our life experiences and values, being open-minded is damn near impossible for any of us. No one is taught be truly open-minded and it shows in our actions. That being said, through careful practice and lots of reading (after all the more reading one does the more exposure we get to the lives of others) we can open our minds. This isn’t the same as allowing others to try and change who we fundamentally are as a person. Just hear the other points even if you don’t agree with them.

Informed by evidence: Oh boy, how do I explain this simply? Evidence in this case refers to what is in the text. Not what the author’s intent was even if you’ve read or watched interviews with the author. Keep in mind whatever the author’s intent was when they wrote the piece isn’t the same as what the reader will get out of it. As humans we all bring our life experiences to the page as we read. Our points of reference are different from the author’s. We see and interpret things differently from the author. That’s okay and is wonderful. So when we speak about our analysis being informed by evidence, it needs to be based upon what the text says. From that we can then use the text to support our position or to try and refute the opposing point.

We’ve got the critical part done but the thinking portion is something that needs to be worked on by all of us. Keep the above points in mind whenever you engage in a discussion not only about literature but also about other aspects in your life. Keep in mind, though, it is okay to stick to your guns and principles but treat others with kindness and respect.

 

Weekly Musing: It. Has. Begun!

At the end of February I finished the initial draft of the historical fiction novel I’ve been researching for years. I’ve taken the last few months off away from it so it can sit and because I was mentally exhausted. During these last 4 months I worked on other stuff; mainly new short stories, jotting down new ideas, and accidentally starting another novel.

My self-imposed deadline to begin the revision process was July 1st. Well, as July 1st got closer, the more anxious I became. Excited, some, yes, but anxious because I know there is so much wrong with it. It is going to be an overwhelming amount of work just to get it to a coherent point.

Another cause for my anxiety was this is also going to be the first time I’ve tried revising a novel. Since I’ve never really revised a novel, I wasn’t sure where to start. On and off over the past 4 months I have thought about this process. Where to start? How long will this take me? And more than once, is this even worth it?

I chewed over the last question the most because the story is set during a little known rebellion that ultimately failed and how the ebb and flow of that rebellion is mirrored in the relationship between the two main characters. Because it’s not set in a popular time period or place I am concerned about if it is even worth revising since I suspect it will be a hard sell. Ultimately I realized that I need to continue the work on it. If I don’t I will regret it and even if I can’t get it traditionally published or decide to not even self-publish it, then I do need the practice on how to revise a novel.

Once that dilemma was decided, I focused more on trying to figure out what my process is for revising a novel. Writing is such a highly individualized sport that no matter how many books, articles, and interviews I read about revising, it still comes down to figuring out what works for me. I knew I simply couldn’t approach it as I would a short story due to my process for writing a short story is different from writing a novel. Thankfully I’m not under any kind of deadline so I can take my time.

The easiest part of the process was the day I printed out the manuscript. Apologies to the tree I probably killed to do it but hey, at least I recycle the paper. Since I hadn’t written it in order this meant I would have to cobble together in order the story. Messy but it’s how my brain works when drafting a novel.

Below is a picture of what it looked like when I put the book in order.

Organizing part 1

All laid out

Good thing I have a large expanse of floor space to lay things out. Since I need to visualize and touch things, I spent a couple of days staring at the finished product including reviewing scenes I was throwing out as well as noting scenes which still needed to be written.

What I happily discovered was by laying out the whole novel like I did was seeing each character’s presence in the story. It was also nice seeing the story falls into the classic 3 act structure.

Another problem I had to contend with was since I have two main characters who’s stories start off in different locations until they finally merge into one, how in the hell was I planning on ordering the story? Good for me I had written scenes down onto notecards with dates I worked on each scene. I connected the scenes together, dividing them into beginning, middle, and end. To solve the two main character question I further divided things by designating one column for each character and ordered things accordingly.

Compiling this proper like

Compiling this proper like

Essentially I’m revising two novels which will be combined in the next round of revision. At this point, this makes sense to me and I think will allow me to completely immerse myself into each character’s mind and world.

Next came the very scary step of actually starting the revision stage. Below is a picture of what I’m referring to as my command center: the dining room table. While I have separate desks for my computer and physical writing, neither are big enough for me to spread out. Since I’ll be fact checking and doing additional research during this phase, I need my computer nearby. And who honestly uses their dining room table? We certainly don’t very often.

The bridge

The bridge

As of this writing, I’ve revised the opening chapter which took a lot longer than I anticipated. In the months ahead I know more research will be done, scenes will be added and deleted. The least of my concerns is the harder examination of the prose itself. Yes, I’m trying to rewrite some of the crap I threw down on paper but once I have my facts straightened out, I can relax and focus on that.

What I’ve been telling myself during this process is to keep in mind to take it word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter. This isn’t a sprint or even a marathon but an extreme marathon.