Weekly Musing: What I Like About You

Readers have favorite types of characters. They could be characters opposite our own personalities allowing us to live vicariously through them. They could be like ourselves, but do and say things we wish we could do and go on adventures we dream of. Favorite types of characters can be found in genre fiction as each genre has tropes readers expect. Other times favorite authors have their own character tropes readers love.

As a reader, I gravitate toward strong female characters. They don’t have to be physically strong; I’d prefer if they weren’t because I don’t lift, bro. Rather females who are smart, resourceful, and flawed. Humor is also a plus, but it depends upon the appropriateness of the story. I also prefer them to not fit into societal expectations, who stand out, and either are equal to men or fight to be an equal.

In some ways, my favorite female characters are like me; usually the intelligence, humor, and being deeply flawed. Overall, though, they differ greatly from me. They are bold and brave where I feel weak. Adventurous whereas I’m a homebody. Speak up where I’m too scared. Or if they are a villain, they tap into my dark side.

There is also a certain type of male character I enjoy. Like the women, I prefer the men to be smart, funny (without being childish), flawed, but also kind without being boring. Likewise, it’s great when they buck expectations, be it society’s or the reader’s. I appreciate it when a male isn’t just a warrior or a brute and I certainly don’t understand the “bad boy” trope. A level of vulnerability is great as well though I don’t see that as often as I’d like to.

Having favorite types of characters is true for authors as well. As a writer, I try to write characters I myself enjoy. Sometimes upon first glance they fit a standard trope, but through the story I try to reveal they don’t fit. Other times from the start I make it clear this person isn’t like everyone else and this difference is one of the struggles they will deal with.

For some reason, I frequently feel more comfortable writing male characters. Perhaps it’s because I like it when men are portrayed differently and want readers, especially female readers, to see men in a different light.

I struggle writing females. Since I’ve always felt as if I don’t fit in with my own gender, I worry my women won’t connect with female readers. It’s a contradictory philosophy, especially when compared to my philosophy of writing male characters. But a lifetime of blank stares and mouths agape expressing views and opinions counter to what many females feel and think has had an impact on my writing. That being said, I am working on when I do write women, to keep in mind there are plenty of examples of “different” women who connect with readers.

While we all have our favorite character tropes, it’s import for both readers and writers to explore outside your comfort zone. Within those characters something special can be discovered. You can also safely tap into other parts of yourself you are afraid of. Similarly, it’s a great way to delve into diversity on multiple levels.

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Weekly Musing: Something New

You never know when or where inspiration will strike. Sometimes it comes from an observation, a news story, from a book currently being read. Sometimes there’s no explanation for it. We can either follow this and fall into a rabbit hole of creation or we can ignore it.

Not looking for a new novel idea, I have plenty, I was nevertheless inspired by a recent post on the Dirty, Sexy History blog. Despite the name of the blog, not all of it’s posts are dirty or sexy. Their focus is to bring up unique tidbits of history normally never mentioned in books. The post which has inspired a novel I have started working on is about a period in Victorian England where floriography, or the “language” of flowers, was quite popular working alongside Dating to ancient Greek and Roman times, flowers and plants have stood as symbols of love, friendship, dislike, and a rainbow of emotions.

Intrigued, it got me thinking and soon inspiration for a novel came about. I’ll not go into too many details because I don’t like discussing whatever I’m working on. In my opinion, whatever I’m working on could be for myself, could be for a themed anthology, or it could be a novel I may or may not want to pursue getting published. What I will say about my new project is I’m exploring the idea of communicating emotion through flowers. In doing research it became apparent people would create arrangements expressing complex emotions. It’s a very Victorian thing to do. In an age defined by repression of emotion, floriography was a way to creatively let your thoughts and feelings out.

I began thinking about how could I use this to create a story? Unlike so many of my other stories, this is a project where the characters are of my own construction. Beyond a vague concept of the main character, I’m allowing the research to drive the development as well as the setting and plot.

Since this isn’t my first foray into historical fiction, I’m using lessons learned on previous projects. For example, there is such a thing as too much research and it’s easy to get sucked into a research black hole. When I start worrying about nitpicky details then I need to back off. I also set myself a time limit on research. After a month, whatever I had is what I was going to use to develop the characters and the story.

Or so I thought. Admittedly there are knowledge gaps and research, particularly in historical fiction, is never truly done. However, instead of stopping in the middle of writing to go back to research, I’m using the weekends, a time I normally do not write, to work on it. My hope is this will prevent me from overthinking and only stick to relevant information. I’m also hoping it will keep me focused on this being a piece of fiction and not a research paper.

Something different for me is I started writing without a finished outline. I’m a writer who is a hybrid; not a pantser, but I do struggle to have a complete plan before writing. Even with a full outline it changes enormously as the characters and new ideas take over. But for my sanity on the weekends I’m working to flesh out and rework the road map.

I’m excited for this project and hope it will be different from anything I’ve written before. The uniqueness of the subject matter as well as a unique main character is energizing me. I don’t know how long this rough draft will take and I’m not setting a concrete deadline.  So, while I’m nervous, this new approach I’m hoping will work for me.

Weekly Musing: Something Different

This week I thought I’d talked about a movie I recently watched and what caught my attention as a writer. This won’t be a movie review, there are plenty of site for that, rather I’ll be examining the narrative structure, dialogue, and character development of Dunkirk.

First, let’s examine the narrative structure of the movie. While it doesn’t break any ground in structure, I still found it intriguing. Christopher Nolan, who in addition to directing the film also wrote and produced it, utilizes a non-linear approach. He uses flashbacks at appropriate times to develop certain characters but to also show the chain of events which took a dicey situation into a disaster. Nolan makes it easy to keep track of the back and forth which to me is tricky. There are books I’ve read which have done this back and forth is such a sloppy way I couldn’t keep track of where I was in the timeline.

Using a non-linear approach to storytelling is tricky no matter what the medium is. Perhaps it’s easy for a visual medium, perhaps it’s easier for the written word. I truly don’t know. There are some people who simply cannot follow anything straight forward. That’s fine. All our brains are wired differently. The film makes it easy because from the start the audience is given a notation of 1 week or 1 day letting us know what is going on. Nothing more is needed to explain what Nolan is doing.

Next, I’ll examine the dialogue or the rather shockingly lack of dialogue in Dunkirk. Normally, I am someone who loves dialogue and believes it is the best way to show character. But with this movie, I find myself appreciating its sparseness. It simply does not need it except where appropriate. According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie the dialogue for the movie is only 76 pages. A page of dialogue for a script equals 1 minute of spoken dialogue. This gives the impression the movie is only 76 minutes long movie, but it is 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

Nolan’s philosophy toward the movie was to focus solely on the event itself. No need for big speeches from military men or Churchill. No need to show the enemy. In fact, the only interaction the movie deals with the enemy are pieces of paper which floated down upon the French and English soldiers printed by the Germans showing them how they were surrounded on the beach in the opening few minutes. That’s all that is needed; not discussions between characters as to what it means. In a traditional war movie we would get nothing but grandiose speeches by military men and politicians and explanations for just how difficult each decision was.

The lack of dialogue creates an intimate sense each character is operating on instinct. For example, dialogue would have ruined a scene in which two characters pick up the gurney of a wounded soldier left behind on the beach after a German bombing. They realize he is still alive and know their best and only chance to leave is to pick him up and hustle him to the medical boat, the only boat authorized to leave. Through their actions the audience gets what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. To have them talk about it would quite frankly come across as 1) info dumping purely for the audience’s sake, and 2) make them sound stupid. The reality of it is I doubt many of the people sat around discussing themselves or the war. It simply wasn’t what was on their mind. What mattered was surviving long enough to get off that damn beach and go home.

The most dialogue comes between the interaction of a captain of a small civilian boat enlisted by the navy, his son, his son’s friend, and a stray army officer they pick up along the way. This is effective because it focuses the attention on heroes we aren’t used to seeing on screen. The audience later finds out why so many civilian vessels were enlisted to help near 400,000 men get off a beach.

Finally, I’d like to examine Nolan’s approach to characters. I am someone who lacks stories to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Characters are how I make, or don’t make, an emotional connection to the overall story. However, Dunkirk is truly plot-driven. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters the audience doesn’t care about. With a large ensemble cast, a mixture of well-known actors such as such as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, Nolan instead focuses primarily on young, unknown actors and their story.

From the start Dunkirk is intentionally vague with information about the characters, their backgrounds, and honestly, even their names. No matter what medium, the audience gets information early on about why we should or shouldn’t like a character. We usually get bits of relevant backstory so that the audience clearly understands the stakes for each character. In war movies, the characters are taken one step further in that we also get to know the military men and politicians behind the decisions.

In Dunkirk, we do not get this nor is it really needed. Enough is given so we feel how harrowing each of their stories is. Though it is a historical movie, and it’s easy enough to look up how it ends, I teared up and empathized with the characters. From the army officer pleading with a civilian boat captain to not go to Dunkirk to the young men beaten by the Germans to the air force pilots circling the beach to bring down enemy planes, I had an emotional connection to them.

As a writer, watching a movie like Dunkirk shows how effective storytelling can be when it breaks a few rules. Granted, I think the primary reason why it works is because of top notch acting so the sparse dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and lack of character development works. Though I know there are books which employ one or all of these traits, I think it’s more difficult. The movie certainly challenged me to re-examine my thoughts on plot-driven stories. I don’t know if it has inspired to me to try my hand at a non-traditional story structure; I think that is something very few have a talent for. But like reading outside one’s genre, it’s important to examine how other mediums tell a story.

Weekly Musing: Dogma

I decided to dedicate 2017 as the year I would question the validity of writing advice. Reexamine the rules and regulations drilled into writers via our writer friends and groups and which pop up on blogs and respected writing magazines. When you are new, or even more experienced, the message is to learn as much as possible. To do otherwise is to willingly handicap yourself.

Very little is said about writing for joy or as an expression of characters, stories, and feelings we’ve been carrying in our heads for years. Instead, we’re told to worry about genre and making sure we stick to the expectations while at the same time striving to break the mold. We’re told to start building an online presence before we even have a rough draft completed. Don’t forget to be active on social media and review every book we’ve ever read on Goodreads and Amazon. We’re told to start following agents and publishers on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget to follow every blog known to man. Again, all before that rough draft is even done. It all comes across as people pleasing and discourages rocking the boat if you want to get published.

At some point, at least for me, it became too much; nothing but noise, a massive distraction, incredibly repetitive, and maybe even pointless. But who am I to question? I know nothing. Surely, I must be wrong because one does not disagree with such tried and true platitudes. Or can you?

Though this post from Anne R. Allen focuses on questioning the dogma which surrounds book marketing, I think the overall point is important. As writers, we should be skeptical of the dogmatic thinking within writing and publishing. It’s okay to wonder if the advice dispensed in Stephen King’s On Writing, a book considered by many to be an almost Bible of sorts for writers, still holds water. It’s okay to question what a blogger swear is the Absolute Truth and the Only Way To Do This is, indeed, the case. Pay close attention and it will quickly become apparent of the contradictory advice and rules. How confusing.

There are a few rebels willing to state don’t believe everything you read or told. What works for one author isn’t what will work for everyone despite confident assertions. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve come away with it. Go ahead and be skeptical. Realize one size does not fit all. Every institution and industry needs people willing to doubt the validity of standard practices and dogmatic thinking. As Allen points out in her blog post, much of the marketing advice is outdated. I’d argue much of the writing advice out there is outdated or will become outdated. Even some grammar rules are debated and changed.

I’m not saying everything out there is rubbish. It’s great to get ideas on how to improve productivity or tools to organize your thoughts or to learn more about structure or strengthen your grammar. At the same time, don’t be afraid to wonder if you need an 8-page long character sheet. Don’t be afraid to dismiss a book’s advice to fully diagram your story before writing a rough draft. Don’t be afraid to be anti-Oxford comma. You’re not a failure or any less of a writer. Also, don’t be trouble by NOT reading everything upon the subject of writing or publishing. At the end of the day what’s most important is writing your story; not if you have thousands of followers on Twitter. The writing itself should speak for itself and is what will attract readers.

Weekly Musing: That One Book

A while ago I stumbled upon a suggestion for a blog post of talking about the one book which inspired me to write. The main point is to talk about whatever book it was in a positive light. For me, though, I have a different interpretation. For years there never was any one book or author which made me think I could write. I’d always assumed writers were highly intelligent and operated on a higher level. And even though I’d been messing around on and off throughout my life with ideas and starting stories, it wasn’t until I read Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight that I truly gathered the courage and inspiration to commit more fully to writing.

Now stay with me on this one. The main reason why Meyers’s book inspired and gave me confidence to write was because it’s so poorly written, in my opinion. It’s incredibly dull and boring. I can’t relate to any of the characters and couldn’t put myself in their shoes. Probably because I’m nearing 40 and YA really has never done it for me. Throw in lame ass vampires instead of cool, scary ones and you lose me altogether.

After I calmed down from wasting my time on the book, a voice in my head told me “I can writer better than that.” This voice prodded me to take writing more seriously and give it my full effort. Also, if something like this could get published and (unfortunately) become insanely popular, what’s to stop me from trying? Writing has always been one of my strengths and something I love even though my experience has primarily been academic. Naturally, this was before learning the publishing industry is a crap shoot.

Ruminating upon what about Twilight book made me believe in myself, I realized not only was the lackluster characters or banal plot, it’s also the writing style. I thought to myself if I had written, it’d be so much different. This then projected me to brainstorm what types of characters and books I’d like to see. Taking this one step further, I concluded if I wanted to see the kinds of stories and characters I long for, I come up with, then, hmm, the only person who can do that is me.

So, that’s what I started doing. It’s still a giant work in process putting onto paper the ideas. At times, it’s incredibly discouraging reading and hearing how going too far off the beaten path within a genre or flipping a trope on its head has a hard time getting picked up a traditional publisher. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the publisher claims it wants stories like that. Knowing this add another level of overanalyzing to any story I’m working on. Though I’m supposed to not allow this train of thought, I constantly ask myself if whatever I’m working on is sellable.

But when I read a book that defies genre expectations, it gives me hope and inspiration. Oddly enough, that is something even drivel like Twilight possesses. It certainly created a world wherein vampires can survive during the day even if they sparkle like a bedazzled rodeo queen’s jacket. So, if sparkly vampires can sell, perhaps I should take a cue from it and use it as inspiration to be different.

Weekly Musing: Cease and Desist Part Two

A couple of years ago I did a blog post on my five least favorite words. Since then, the list has grown with a few more words I wish I could banish from the English language. Below are five more words who when spoken or read really grinds my gears.

Pop: I’m not so much against the word itself rather the phrase “Makes it pop”. I watch way too much HGTV where the phrase “Makes it pop” is uttered at least half a dozen times in any given program. I also hear this phrase outside of HGTV in reference to anything that makes something else standout.

While it’s a great, easy word to describe something which is more noticeable, I’d like to see different words and phrases mixed in. For example, how about using stands out, contrast, or noticeable?

Tremendous: Since the 2016 Presidential election, this word has lost meaning for me. Instead of tremendous let’s use marvelous, wonderful, great, incredible, fantastic, magnificent, any number of synonyms for this word. Let’s go back to using this word sparingly so that when we do hear it or see it, we don’t roll our eyes or make fun of its usage.

Misogyny: First, let’s have the actual definition. Pretty straight forward and simple, yet I see this word misused all the time. It seems many people believe something or someone is misogynist if at any time anything bad happens to a woman. As a writer, I see this word overly used to describe an author, always a male author, as being a misogynist simply because a female or females endures trauma. Never mind that a work of fiction is not a reflection of how the author thinks or feels as a human. However, I have yet to see a female writer be labeled a misogynist if female characters in her story suffer rape or abuse. In that case the female writer is probably lauded as bringing the experience of female suffering to the masses.

In looking at the definition of misogyny we see no gender distinction. See, I don’t believe misogyny is exclusive to only men. There are women out there who despise their own gender and act with prejudice against other females. Would this not make them misogynists?

Curiously I do not see the male equivalent of this word, misandry, used. Certainly, there are females who harbor a hatred, dislike, or mistrust of men or who harbor prejudice against men. Do we not have books, movies, and TV shows where women inflict abuse upon men simply because they are a man? Do we not see how it is social acceptable for a group of women to rip on men? But if a group of men did the same thing, used the same language in the same tone of voice, we’d scream “Misogyny!”

The overuse and misuse of this word revels a double-standard in society and why we need to think before using it.

Terrorism/Terrorist: Two more words which, in my opinion, are overused and used incorrectly. Here are the definitions of terrorism and terrorist. Ever since 9/11, terrorism and terrorist have been overused and more troubling, misused. We have seen these words used in a bias manner to create a dangerous “us vs. them” narrative. After all, what is the difference between someone who identifies as a white supremacist and who attacks parishioners of a black church and the 9/11 attackers? Both committed crimes meant to scare and intimidate people based upon intense hate.

Not only do these words show bias, they are way overused. People have been committing acts of terrorism for thousands of years. History is littered with revolutionaries who, yes, committed what could be considered terrorist acts against numerous governments. Groups of people have killed and intimated others simply for being different. Is this not terrorism? After all it is a deliberate, calculated attempt at scaring others. Yet humans have rarely uttered the words terrorist or terrorism until the 21st century.

 

There you have it, a few more words I can’t stand. As you can tell the theme of why they bug me so much is either incorrect use or being repeated so much they become white noise. To me this shows a lack of creativity or ability to use a thesaurus. It also changes the impact of those words. Some are meant to illicit anger and outrage to push a hate-filled agenda. Others lose their impact by becoming white noise. Words hold so much power, let’s be smarter about how we use them.

Weekly Musing: My Five Favorite Words

I love language (duh) and love noticing the frequency is which words and phrases each person uses. Whether we realize it or not we all have a speech pattern unique to us. I’m sure we all have favorite words which when we hear them makes us smile. Below are my five of my favorite words and why I love them.

Asinine: This adjective describes something as silly or stupid. I first heard this word from my spouse several years ago. No, he didn’t use it to describe me rather he used it to describe a person he knew. Having never heard this glorious word, which sounded so much like ass or asshole, I asked what it meant. I love using this word because it’s an insult flavored with a hint of intelligence. This pleases me as I sound smart, yet a bit crude all at the same time.

Paprika: I love spicy food and this is a spice I frequently use. Not only do I have the regular paprika, mild and a bit sweet, but I also have the privilege of possessing a bag of very hot Hungarian paprika given to me by one of my brother-in-laws. The spice itself is a wonderful flavor and such an easy way to add color to a dish. Besides perking up a dish, it’s difficult to feel blue saying “paprika”. These three syllables roll happily off my tongue and forces me to smile. Honestly, try it. You’ll feel better.

Puppy: Every human being on the planet knows what a puppy is. Most of us melt a little whenever we see a baby animal and with dogs it’s those big eyes and klutzy, happy way they move about. Just writing, typing, and saying the word puppy brings me joy. The lovely triplicate p sound. The way it pops off the tongue. The instant image of dozens of puppies playing with each other, tumbling over their own underdeveloped limbs, their juvenile barks, wagging tails, peeing on your floor. You get the idea. One can feel a puppy’s tongue licking their face and a cold, wet nose on the skin when you see the word puppy.

Cucumber: Cucumbers are one of my favorite vegetables. They are light, slightly sweet, cool, refreshing, and go great in sandwiches, salads, and pasta. It’s fun to say and write because the coo sound in the first syllable isn’t heard frequently. Adding one letter modifies the sound significantly. Like eating the vegetable, it has a calming effect on me.

Chocolate: It’s obvious by now I love my food words. Chocolate is no exception. When you say the word chocolate it just sounds so decadent, a bit exotic (thank you South America), and comforting. Chocolate is used to celebrate both the good and the bad. Gotta a birthday? Let’s have some chocolate! Got dumped? Let’s have some chocolate! Made it through another day? Let’s have some chocolate! The food itself is versatile; it can be eaten on its own, paired with other sweet flavors, or even combined with savory flavors. It can be baked, drunk, curled, melted, tempered, grated, made into a powder or paste, and of course, poured into candy bar format. Like some of the other words on this list, the combination of sounds makes me smile.

 

Language is such a curious thing. I’m amazed at the number of languages in existence. In awe of how it constantly evolves with new words and words which fall out of favor. What our favorite words are, I believe, adds another layer to our personalities. Are we serious or silly? Are we sophisticated or down-to-earth? Are we book smart of street smart? In looking over my own list it’s clear I like food, animals, and being snarky though with a smidge of intelligence. Pretty accurate insight into who I am.

Weekly Musing: Is Prose Getting Dumber?

One thing I’ve noticed whenever I jump from reading a book written long ago to a novel written in modern times is how dramatically different the prose is. At times when I read something from the 1800s or early 1900s it can be torturous. The now archaic words. The complex sentence structure with multiple semi-colons. Words which have changed meaning. Pages upon pages of exposition. It’s hard to ignore the stark contrast with today’s novels with it’s sparser language, punchier dialogue, and simpler sentence structure.

Frequently I’ve asked myself “Have novels gotten ‘dumber’?” I know language is constantly changing. New words enter the lexicon; others fade away from disuse or even change meaning. This evolution of language is what makes it beautiful. With the proliferation of authors, literacy, and technology which makes access to writing and reading literature easier, of course the written word has been affected.

But has the change been too drastic? Have books become “dumber”? Are books today easier to read? If so, is this a negative? These questions tie into the readability of a story. Readability is the concept in which some piece of writing is judged on how easy it is for a reader to comprehend. Several tests exists which determine a piece’s readability based upon factors such as number of words in a sentence, number of syllables, number of sentences, and content.

The two most well-known are the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. Each is based upon a formula which looks at total words, total sentences, and total syllables. Depending upon the test, the results yield either a corresponding grade level, or ease of readability for the average reader. Readability, be it an essay, fiction, non-fiction book, or anything else, is so important many word processing programs come with a function which will tell the author how readable the piece is.

With these formulas and others, we can now examine the readability of books through the centuries and begin to answer, “Are books getting dumber?” Though not attempting to answer this question, a fascinating article by Shane Snow nevertheless can possibly help. In the article, he charts the readability of various authors as well as famous novels regardless of time period. What’s most striking about Snow’s article is how many famous writes, regardless of genre, don’t write about a 9th grade level. This doesn’t mean the content is necessarily appropriate for a 9th grader rather it means if a person has at least a 9th grade education they should be able to comprehend the story.

Armed with this information I did a little digging into the readability of well-known books from the classics to more contemporary novels. Using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test (this measures complexity of language and not content or appropriateness), I discovered the following:

Frankenstein = 9.6

Fifty Shades of Grey = 3.2

Sherlock Holmes = 6.1 (average)

Harry Potter series = ranges from 5th grade to 8th grade

Keep in mind this is an incredibly small sample so to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion requires more data. But looking at this, along with Snow’s article, leads me to determine that maybe prose hasn’t gotten dumber over the years. Yes, novels and other types of writing have gotten easier to read, which is not the same thing as the story themselves being dumber. The content of books today are just as complex, perhaps even more so, than in years past. For example, Jane Austen books aren’t particularly difficult to understand content wise. What provides the challenge for modern readers is the writing style.

I was surprised to come to this conclusion. Before I did research for this post, my automatic answer would be “Yes, books have gotten dumber over the years.” Like Snow, I equated complexity of language with being more intellectual and therefore “better”. Yet when I really think about the modern books I read versus the “classics”, this is not true. A more simplified prose does not mean a story lacks symbolism, character development, or a complex plot structure. Conversely, a novel written in sophisticated prose doesn’t mean it can’t suffer from shallow characters or an overly simple plot.

For fun, I ran the readability statistics on my finished stories and the results were interesting. On the Flesch Reading Ease scale I average in the 80s. On the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level my work corresponds to a 4th grade reading level. Of course, this doesn’t mean any of these pieces should be read by a 4th grader, I don’t write children’s stories, just the reading comprehension level is at the 4th grade. I was surprised at these results. It is still stuck in my head in order for writing to be good, it needs to be written at a certain grade level, preferably college or above. But that is not the case. Just because my stories score in the 80s on the Flesch scale and 4th grade on the Flesch-Kincaid scale doesn’t mean the stories lack grown-up depth or appeal.

While today’s novels and non-fiction are written more for the everyday person, it’s wrong to equate it with being dumb. What makes a book smart or dumb isn’t what appears in black and white on the page. It’s the content, rather than style, and what we the reader take out of the story which determines if a book is smart or dumb. We must be willing to dig below the surface, or not, to find the meaning. Clearly many of today’s books, while more direct and simple, can stand beside books written centuries before and should not be discounted as lacking intelligence.

Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part Two

Note: Part One can be read here.

Last week I explored the topic of writers, mental illness, and creativity. This week I relay my own personal experiences with mental illness and creativity.

I have gone through several periods of depression and have General Anxiety Disorder. I’ve been in therapy on and off to help me deal with both and to work through life events. I’ve also been on and off anti-depressants, been suicidal, and currently on anxiety medication. While I feel like I’m in a much better place, I see a therapist every once in a while when either my anxiety or depression or both flare up.

By now I recognize when either one or both creeps in to take over my life. The biggest signal is when my desire to write is too overwhelming. It’s not the normal writer insecurities and gremlins; it’s something far more crippling. My whole body seizes up. My breath is shallow. My heart races. I’m afraid of words and writing. Since writing is what I do, I find this upsetting. It’s not unusual for this feeling to last from a few days, if I’m lucky, to several weeks.

But in researching last week’s blog post, a study trying to determine if there truly is a link between mental illness and creativity caught my eye and got me thinking. The researcher discovered mental illness for some isn’t great for creativity. Schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t lend itself well for written word expression but can be useful for other artistic pursuits. Other forms of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, can greatly inhibit creativity when the writer is in the middle of a bad spell. It’s not until one feels better that their creativity can flourish.

From my own experiences, and anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be treated as gospel, when either my anxiety and/or depression take over it is pretty much impossible for me to write. I try and sometimes force myself, but my already overly analytical personality quickly dismisses anything written, any idea, as utter shit. Again, this feels different from normal concerns. It’s more intense and saps any joy or motivation to write. This in turns feeds my anxiety and/or depression and quickly I’m stuck in a giant cycle that is difficult to break.

Until early last week I felt as if I was the only one who went through this. Then I stumbled upon an Op Ed piece in The New York Times. In it author Julia Fierro relays her own recent experience where she admitted to an audience at a reading she’d stopped writing for 8 years due to battling OCD, anxiety, and depression. Like so many, she bought into the myth suffering fuels creativity. But for her it stopped altogether.

During those years she taught writing, conducted workshops, got married and had children, and ran a small business. She’d convinced herself clearly there weren’t enough hours in the day to carve out even a minute for writing. However, the truth was she needed to become well enough. Once she understood her mental illness was a lifelong condition and found the right medication, she was drawn back to writing. She rediscovered the joy of setting fingers to keyboard and her creativity flourished.

This was refreshing and freeing to read. It helped put my own struggles into perspective and lessen the extreme amount of guilt I feel every time I got through my own creative halt. Other people find their creativity lost when their mental illness acts up? You mean it’s not laziness? For me, and I suspect others like Fierro, it’s impossible to openly state, “Yes, I can’t write. Not at the moment.” After all Rule #1 of Writers Club is ASS IN CHAIR NO MATTER WHAT! A writer cannot simply come out and say this without incurring at least a few eye rolls and advice to write no matter how bad you feel.

Another thing I’ve noticed while my creativity is halted, I still do write. I just write more in my personal journal. And that is still writing. I’ll write in it for hours and usually daily. In addition to being therapeutic, journal writing helps me work through struggles and uncomfortable feelings. The act also frees up brain space gradually allowing for more productive thoughts. When I’m in a good space, I don’t write in my personal journal because I’m too busy working on my creative writing.

Over the past two weeks I have learned creativity and mental illness may go hand-in-hand in both a positive and negative way. Some are able to work through troubles and use the pain to spur their art. Others are paralyzed by it until they can get themselves in a good place. Either one is okay. What’s most important for anyone with mental illness is to get the care you need. Whether through therapy or medication or both, realize you do matter and that your health, both physical and mental, are important to live a productive and creative life.

Weekly Musing: Date Much?

One of the more puzzling pieces of advice given to writers, especially new ones, is to discourage the use of details which could “date” a piece. What this means are references to TV shows, movies, songs, people, books, dances, etc. anything which is considered a cultural reference. The reasoning is when future readers read the piece they will not understand any of the references and will stop reading.

But let’s stop and examine this piece of advice. Does it honestly make sense? No. No, it doesn’t. Not in my opinion and I’ll explain why. Think about all the books written by authors long dead set in a time period future readers would not have been alive for. Now think about the references to clothing, musicians, dances, people, what have you. Did you ever feel this dated the story enough you couldn’t even begin to understand what was going on? I daresay your answer is “no.” Why? Because it’s the story and characters you make a connection with more than knowing (or not) who Scott Joplin is or what a farthingale is or how the dance the Twist goes.

Now let’s look at our own lives. Are there bands or singers you love which pre-date even your conception? Are there old movies and TV shows you love? Is your favorite book written by Jane Austen? Love to dress up and go to Renaissance Fairs? So, why in the world should writers refrain from tapping into the culture of its characters and setting? We all have a favorite something from long before we were born.

Adding in cultural references characters would know doesn’t “date” a story. It gives the reader a little more insight into what kind of people the characters are. For example, say a book is set in the 1990s. One character is into classical music, but maybe his or her best friend is all about grunge. What does this tell us about these two people? How could two people with such divergent musical tastes be best friends? What else about characters is so different?

Cultural references also add depth to the story’s setting beyond just physical background. For example, a story is set during apartheid South Africa. In addition to describing the living conditions of characters, having a character listening to the radio, noting his or her favorite songs, or reading a book by a particular author allows the reader to get inside the mind of the character.

As a reader who enjoys historical fiction and has read some of the classics, there are frequently references I don’t understand. My lack of understanding ranges from being ignorant to common, everyday terms to more complex references to history and people. Does this bother me? At times a little depending upon the level of detail I’m given or not. It’s not the culture I’ve grown up with after all. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy way to be able to look up information! Oh, wait. There is. Off to the internet we go!

And that’s one of the main reasons why this piece of advice irks me and one which I wish would stop getting passed around. To me it’s very similar to not using big or uncommon words in prose. This idea that to do so slows down some readers is insulting and a bit much. If a reader honestly stops reading to look up a word or Google a reference and gets discouraged from reading on, that’s the reader’s problem, not the author’s.

If writers don’t add in those cultural references, it risks turning the story and characters into something generic, basic, and bland. Would anyone want to read such a thing? Personally, I don’t. How is a reader supposed to get to know the characters and see them as individuals? How can I better understand the world the story is set in if I don’t have details unique to it? As writers, let’s not be afraid of adding cultural details into our stories. At the end of the day it is our job is to tell a story and use whatever details which will bring the world and characters in the story to life.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Stravinsky Intrigue by Darin Kennedy

This month’s book review is the sequel to The Mussorgsky Riddle by Darin Kennedy. The Stravinsky Intrigue follows psychic Mira Tejedor as she is called upon to solve why little girls are suddenly leaving home only to be found unresponsive and in some kind of undefinable coma state. Also like The Mussorgsky Riddle, the answer seems to lie in the labyrinth mind of Anthony Faircloth. This time instead of being obsessed with Mussorgsky, he’s obsessed with Igor Stravinsky, specifically his “Firebird” ballet.

The book opens with Mira days away from making a permanent move to Charlotte to be closer to her boyfriend, psychologist Dr. Thomas Archer. In a few days her daughter will be joining her, but when the first little girl disappears and is found a day later in the middle of a park, not suffering from physical trauma but some kind of psychological trauma, her attention is diverted. Quickly she notices the similarity between the girl’s state and what happened to Anthony Faircloth the previous year. At first Mira wonders if Anthony somehow has something to do with it. The situation further escalates as more little girls follow the same pattern and a new possible suspect comes into play. With Mira’s contact with them and Anthony, she is soon sucked into an equally bizarre world as the one she was trapped in The Mussorgsky Riddle.

What I liked about this book is though it is a sequel, it’s one that lives up to the expectations set forth in the first book. Without the need to explain Mira’s abilities, the book is able to focus more on some of the supporting characters and tests the relationships between Mira and Dr. Archer and Anthony’s mother who is extremely reluctant to allow a much recovered Anthony from being dragged into the psychic link he and Mira have in order to help solve the case. All the characters returning from the first book are still interesting and develop further.

The twist in the book is well-done and Kennedy does a great job of getting the reader to question who is really behind the sinister plot. As you read you think it’s one person then another then you’re not sure at all until the twist occurs. It comes at a plausible point in the story without totally catching the reader off guard.

The pacing of The Stravinsky Intrigue is quite good though I think it was rushed a tad as more little girls turn up in the strange comatose state, but I don’t think the reader needs twelve different scenes. It would drag the story down.

Along with the pacing of the book, I think the ending was strong. Like the first book, it ties up the story and is not a cliffhanger as so often happens in a series. Though this is a sequel, it can be read without having read the first book. A reader doing that will not be lost, in my opinion. I actually like that as too often as a reader I’ve been frustrated to pick up an interesting looking book only to discover it’s not the first book in a series.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Stravinsky Intrigue 4.5 pencils. A worthy and interesting sequel and I can’t wait for the next book.

Weekly Musing: What Fuels Creativity?

Note: Apologies for being MIA for over a month. Life had been intervening, not in a bad way, for the past several weeks. Things should be calming down enough to allow me to get back on track. Thanks for your patience.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated by creativity. Going as far back as elementary school I would watch behind-the-scenes specials of shows and movies. I was blown away by how special effects, storylines, characters, sets, etc. were created. As I’ve gotten older I am still fascinated by creativity in all areas from music to art to dance and of course, writing. To see other people’s expression is amazing. How did they come up with that? It’s awe-inspiring and intimidating to know someone’s mind works on a different level than mine.

To this day I still love watching special features and listening to interviews with fellow creative types to learn where their inspirations come from. Often I have wondered what sparks creativity and listening to others has taught me it can come from anything. Many joke without coffee or tea the muse will continue to slumber. Others joke without copious amounts of alcohol and drugs they are unable to create.

Beyond those stimuli, what really is the root of creativity? It’s this need, this want to express ourselves in whatever form fits. An individual’s life experiences also spur it acting as a healthy way for us to deal with emotions and events both good and bad. Seeing the world around us and wanting to process how it makes us feel also causes us to create. Some use their art to comment on what they feel is lacking or is too much of in society.

Obvious writing is my creative outlet. What drives it is it the only outlet I feel comfortable with and seem to have some aptitude for. What inspires me to create comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes it’s a show I’m watching. Sometimes it’s what I see going on in the world. Other times it comes from an internal struggle I’m going through. Other times I simply can’t put my finger on where an idea comes from; it just comes.

To me it is vital we all have a creative outlet. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees it and one certainly doesn’t need to pursue it as a career. Not to sound New Agey or full of “woo”, but without a creative outlet of some kind a person risks burying emotions clamoring to be released. Creating something, no matter its format, allows for such a release. Whatever drives your creativity, embrace it.

Weekly Musing: Bad Education

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

The above quote is attributed to William Faulkner and it’s a great piece of advice for both readers and writers. As a reader, it’s frustrating as hell when you read a poorly written book. Your rage bubbles up, you stop reading the book, or continue reading to see if by some miracle the author gets his or her shit together, or you throw the book across the room. Bad books make you appreciate the good books and the talented authors behind them.

I’d argue as a writer, you gain more benefit from reading bad books rather than good ones and the classics. I’m not saying reading only bad books; just realize they probably provide as valuable of an education as the good books. Yes, great books can show you how to really dig deep into your character’s soul. Show you the power and loveliness of the written word. Show you how to immerse you reader into a world they won’t want to leave.

But bad books have more value, in my opinion, because they don’t intimidate a writer. By being bad they can show you what NOT to do. Analyzing where you believe the author dropped the ball can boost your confidence knowing your writing is better than drivel not even worthy of lining a litter box. Use poor prose to push yourself to do better.

That being said, reading shit novels can also mess with you because you realize an editor, a publisher, an agent somewhere read a draft and went “Yup, we think we can sell this.” Some incredibly bad books have sold stupidly well, making their authors rich, while great books written by more talented authors languish.

As a writer when you read an awful book, carefully examine what about it bugs you. Is it the author’s use (or misuse) of the English language? Is it because the characters are underdeveloped and act inconsistently? Is the plot trite? Are you having problems visualizing the world? Is that world uninteresting? Are the descriptions laughable or confusing?

After asking yourself these questions and others you draw up, look at the answers. Use those to improve your own writing as you revise. If you use beta readers, pose those questions to them upfront so they know what to be on the look for as they read.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to apply analysis to everything you read. Trashy or bad books can be a joy to read, sometimes more than great books. Reading for the pure pleasure of reading is the same as writing for the sheer joy of it. Not everything written has to serve a deeper purpose and can be for the hell of it. At the end of the day, as long as you read you’re learning whether consciously or subconsciously.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson

This month’s book review comes courtesy of a murder mystery set on fictional Seward Island off the South Carolina coast. In Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson we meet interior designer Maggie Stewart who goes to Seaward for a much needed vacation and to re-evaluate her life. Within her first day, though, she discovers a dead body of a young art student. She clashes with the local sheriff believing he isn’t taking the cases serious despite this being the first murder on the island in quite a while. Deciding to launch her own investigation she enlists the help of several residents. Along the way she enters the first stages of developing a romance with one of the lifelong residents.

Murder Swings the Tide is extremely problematic. Everything from the main character to supporting characters to the plot to the prose to the pacing of the novel, it’s less than 200 pages, doesn’t work for me.

First, let’s start with Maggie Stewart. She’s incredibly irritating, egotistical, condescending, and judgmental. It was very difficult for me to buy her as someone smart enough to solve a murder better than the sheriff. For some reason she believes he’s not taking it seriously and is constantly asking him where he’s at with the investigation. She bugs him with her half-baked theories, all based on conjecture and no real evidence. It’s as if she’s watched watch too much “Law & Oder” and fancies herself some kind of expert.

In the beginning of the book she wasn’t too terrible. But as the murder investigation goes along, the more grating she becomes. For some reason she believes “employing” some of the dumber locals to help her makes sense. Never mind one of them is one of the most unreliable characters I’ve ever read. She’s incredibly judgmental upon meeting many of the locals, viewing them as stupid yokels. She shows her insecurity when meeting a lifelong friend of a guy she’s interested in. Immediately she writes the woman off as a bitch, she is overbearing and abrasive, and concludes the two are having an affair. As written there was nothing to suggest to the reader this is true. Not sure how she came to this conclusion no matter how many times he explains to Maggie the woman was his dead sister’s best friend.

The supporting characters are caricatures. Despite the author living in the south, she still writes many of the supporting characters as negative stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast of characters we meet in the local bar (or saloon as it was referred to earlier in the book). Pretty much they are dumb white trash types who need Maggie to save them and show them they can do better in their lives. Even Maggie’s potential love interest is just a caricature; stereotypical rich guy from a well-established family who is firmly anti-development. He’s boring though I do appreciate he’s a nice guy.

The plot is ridiculous, again because of how much of a pain Maggie is. It’s completely possible for a non-law enforcement person to be a competent investigator. Plenty of mystery series feature such characters such as Miss Marple and Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey. The plot doesn’t work because the motive for the murder is thin and the person who committed it suddenly goes into psycho mode. There’s no evidence to support it, other than the scene where the killer pulls the “This is how I did it and if it weren’t for you meddling, I would have gotten away with it!” There’s an unnecessary subplot only vaguely related to the murder in that a couple of people involved she thought were suspects.

The prose of Murder Swings the Tide is incredibly stilted. Too many short sentences. Ordered oddly. As if Robertson was in the draft stages of the story. This doesn’t make for smooth or interesting reading. Descriptions are generic. The dialogue is often silly and makes little sense. When she tries to write in dialect for the locals, she makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The pacing of the book is all over the place. It starts off at a reasonable clip, but then the last third of the book just plows through things as if Robertson was told by the editor to hurry up and just end it. Unlike a lot of mysteries where there’s tension, this book doesn’t have it. I never felt Maggie’s life was in danger other than in her mind.

Overall Murder Swings the Tide was one of those books I should have stopped reading. It’s a mess and doesn’t work as a murder mystery. One a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give it 1 pencil because there’s a puppy named Possum in it.

Weekly Musing: Critique Group Dos and Don’ts – Writer Edition

A component many writers groups offer are critique sessions. This is a time set aside where an agreed upon number of pieces, be they a short story, poetry, or chapters from a novel, are submitted to the group for feedback. While the person critiquing the piece has a responsibility to be honest and fair, the author bears some responsibilities when submitting the piece. Below are a few things I’ve noticed within writers groups I’ve been a part of. Seemingly simple things I wish every author would do as it would set up critiques to be about the content instead of other issues.

So here are some suggestions for an author when submitting work for critique:

Don’t submit an unedited draft – First drafts are garbage. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, doesn’t matter if you’re a published author or not, your first draft is going to be a tangled mess of ideas. Because you are still trying to figure out what the story is, it’s not the draft to submit to your critique group.

What I mean by unedited is at very least clean up the grammar and spelling as much as you are able to. Most writers struggle with grammar and spelling. There are plenty of books, websites, and classes to help improve.

If I’m reading a piece and I have to stop to remind you put a period at the end of a sentence, to capitalize where appropriate, how to use (or not use) a semi-colon, etc., then I can’t concentrate on the story itself. When it comes to the story itself please go through your rough draft at least once to organize your thoughts. Make sure scenes are in some kind of order. Submitting a draft and admitting it’s in no particular order, and it’s not intentional or experimental, is frustrating as the reader. It’s not my job to cobble together the sequence of events.

Format the manuscript in the industry standard – It is easy to find via a simple Google search of what Standard Manuscript Format – Short Story and Standard Manuscript Format – Novel  looks like. Often publishers will even include a link on their Submissions page. NOTE: Times New Roman or Courier New are the accepted fonts.

To make life easier for you and for any potential reader, format your work in the industry standard from the very first draft. You can even set up a template in Microsoft Word for this. As a reader it’s frustrating tapping the writer on the shoulder to remind them of something as simple as Standard Manuscript Format.

In addition to putting your piece in the accepted industry standard, make sure you understand how to properly denote a scene break. Sometimes I see blank lines in between paragraphs. I have no idea if there’s a formatting problem that wasn’t caught or if there’s a scene break. I know I’ve read several novels where this was how a scene break was noted, but the industry standard is three *, sometimes you’ll see three # used, centered with double-spacing before and after. Also, learn how to use Window/Orphan Control.

Clearly note chapters – I’ve read a few pieces where it wasn’t until several pages into the story I came to a page saying “CHAPTER TWO” that I realized everything I read up to them was chapter 1. For me this changes how I read and analyze the piece. When I read a short story I’m looking to see if it’s a complete story. When I’m reading chapters from a book, I’m looking for something else. Does this chapter tell me a piece of the larger story? Should it be in the novel and at this point? Is there too much backstory? Am I intrigued enough by the character(s) to keep reading? Make it easy on your reader, note those chapters.

 

Putting your work out there for others to read and critique is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Your heart beat speeds up. Your hands get clammy. Sweat breaks out on your brow and/or your armpits. Your stomach is in knots. It’s a big step as you let others see what you’ve been working on for months or years. To make it easier on yourself, put forth your best effort. Correct the grammar and spelling, format the piece correctly, and learn to self-edit. I want to focus on your story. I don’t want to be distracted by easy fixes, things all writers must learn to do unless you want your work to be rejected without being read. It takes a lot of work to edit and revise. For many writers it’s not their favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil. Make the critique of your work easier on yourself. Allow the reader to focus on the content and how to help you improve.

Weekly Musing: Dear Former Me

Sometime in the past

Dear Soon-To-Be-DH Hanni,

Why is this letter addressed to someone named DH Hanni? That most certainly is not your name. Soon, though, it will be a pseudonym you come up with to publish under. Publish you say? Publish what? What’s one of the few things you’ve always felt came naturally to you?

I hope the answer was writing. Remember how easy the words usually came when you wrote all those papers and essays? Pity you never got assigned creative writing. Perhaps you would have discovered earlier your writing skills extend beyond the purely academic. Sure, you’ve messed around here and there starting a story or written down ideas. My point is, in a short amount of time, in about a couple of years, you’ll pick out the name DH Hanni to write under. Spoiler: You’ll even get published under it!

Future me apparently harbors some delusion we can time travel. We can’t; it’s still not a thing. Never mind the details. If time travel were possible, here’s what I would have told myself years ago.

  • Go ahead and write. Write it all down. Some stuff will be good, some will be damn good, some stuff will be meh, and some of it should be set on fire. Just write.
  • Hold onto the joy you feel when you write.
  • Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of any idea, of any character, any genre, or any emotion that scares us in real life. Don’t be afraid to express anything. Even if someone or a group of people don’t like it, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.
  • Because of your personality, you’ll start researching everything you can about writing including the publishing industry. Don’t do this! There’s such a thing as too much information. Just focus on writing. The more information you learn, the more it will stick in your mind and follow each word you write. You’ll begin to overanalyze every idea and dismiss many before you even write.
  • If you read this is 2010 that idea you’ve got right now? You’ll work on it on and off for years, investing hundred of hours in research, writing, re-writing, re-re-writing, before concluding the project has run its course. It’ll be a “file this in the bottom drawer” type of book. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
  • You’ll continue to be an outliner, but it’ll be different from how you did it in school. No strict way to do it, thank goodness. You’ll also discover whatever you’ve outlined will pretty much be thrown out the window. You can be quite changeable. It’s super frustrating.
  • Be careful about who you listen to and what advice they give. Especially when you gather the courage to allow others to read your work and give you feedback. A lot of what you hear will honestly make little sense. A lot of people, including yourself for a while, will regurgitate advice from famous and not-so-famous authors who are themselves regurgitating advice they were given. I’m not saying completely disregard everything, quite a bit is valid, but really question it. Not all of it applies to everyone.
  • It’s okay to have your own approach to writing. This ties in some with #6 as over and over you’ll hear that a “real” writer writes every day and writes no matter what. Don’t buy into this. Damn real life, you bitch. Find whatever works best. Each writer has their own process and that’s okay. In fact, don’t read anything about the best process; it doesn’t exist.
  • Don’t worry about learning anything about the publishing until you’ve got something you believe strongly in. The sooner you learn about the industry, the more discouraged you’ll feel. Just concentrate on the writing itself.
  • Don’t spend any time brushing up on it. Go ahead and get a couple of grammar books to look up things. There are people who can help as well. You’ve always been solid in this area, though there are rules we’ve forgotten, you don’t have to spend time trying to learn it all over again.
  • You’re a better writer than you think you are. You’ve got solid fundamentals. It’s your mind more than anything which interferes with your creativity. Cut out the noise before it even begins.

There’s definitely more, but I want you to know that you’ll finally conclude writing is something you’ve always wanted to do and explore. It’s such a great fit. Pity we didn’t think about it sooner. For you, future self, writing is how you express yourself best. You’ve always known this. Now is the time to go for it. It’ll be a long, unpredictable road (and you hate unpredictability, I know), often with nothing concrete to show for it. Just stay focused on the writing and don’t beat yourself up so much as you are prone to do.

Be kind to yourself.

Love,

Present Me