Sometimes things happen and writers find themselves up against a wall—the words are on the other side but getting past that wall is impossible. Writer’s Block. Everyone has it at some point. What causes it is almost impossible to pin down—it can be a plot point that doesn’t move, a character that has decided to stop talking, an event that comes out of nowhere and just stops everything dead. So, what to do? First things first, set aside that project for a moment. It will wait patiently while you focus on something else. I promise it will wait for you.
Now, let’s dive into an organic writing practice that’s like free-form jazz. A practice session where musicians come together and each take a turn putting together a piece of music. It’s improvised, it’s in the moment, and each relies on the others to move the melodic line forward. Sometimes they go back and find the song, perfecting it and releasing it. Sometimes they don’t. Most importantly, they just let the music flow from piano to drums, guitar to bass, sax to vocals and back again. Each building and weaving the melody together.
So, what does that mean for us as writers? I think there are times when we need this kind of experience as much as those musicians do. It’s a way to challenge ourselves, a way to create something that is completely unexpected—sometimes even out of our comfort zone.
Here is the exercise: find at least one fellow writer—or if you are part of a writing group two or three or more—and decide, very generally, on a story and characters. For the sake of this blog, we will say our story is about a far off world with three suns and ten moons. It’s a place of war for some, extravagance for others. Each person creates a character and gives them a basic personality that all the other writers know—so they can write that character when their point in the musical odyssey comes up. That's the beginning, very rough outline and equally rough character sketches. Once that is done, set a limit on chapter length—between 1,500 and 3,000 words is good.
Now comes the fun, challenging and scary part.
One person starts the story, building in the world (it doesn’t have to be sci fi or fantasy, it can work as well in a historical novel, a romance or anything else depending on participants and inclination). Their character will begin it all, and they can even bring the other characters into the fray. Remember there is a word length and you will be passing the “melodic line” on to the next player. Cliffhangers are fine, but leave a way out—this is collaborative, not competitive.
This can be far more challenging than it seems on the surface. Most writers like to have complete control over their world and their character(s). Leaning back after you’ve written a chapter and waiting for what comes next is hard. Very hard. Especially when the story takes a turn you weren’t expecting—but that is the whole point. It’s a challenge to let yourself just go with the flow of the story in the same way those jazz musicians go with the flow of the music.
I’ve done this several times. In fact, I am always trying to talk someone into doing this with me. I love the it—well, I love it now. At first it was incredibly hard to just let the story happen. I don’t tend to do very hard outlines in stories, but I generally know where they are going. With this kind of exercise, it is impossible to control that “where”. It’s hard, it’s scary, to hand a character you inevitably end up loving over to someone else, but in the end it’s worth it. You can look at the project you were stuck on with new eyes and maybe a path around that wall of Writer’s Block will be visible. And you might just find that in the meantime you (and your fellows) have created a story you all truly love.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
It’s a question I am asked a lot. “Do you use an outline?” The answer? Yes and no. I tend to have a very vague outline in my head when I set out to write a story, blog or novel. I have an idea of what points and pieces I want to hit—action, character development, beginning, middle, and ending, but I don’t lay it out on paper. I tend to let the story evolve organically while keeping those points I want in the back of my mind.
I have compared writing to music before, and this is another time I think the comparison is apropos. When a writer begins, like a musician learning an instrument, there is a lot of practice involved. You don’t pick up a violin and magically begin to play Mozart. You practice, you run scales, you learn music by rote, often bar by bar until you have learned an entire piece. Then you set out on another and another, until one day you can sit down and pick up the violin, open music you’ve never seen before and “hear” how it should be played, catch the nuances on the first or second time, then refine from there.
Writing is very much like that, you can’t sit down the first time at a computer and magically produce Pride and Prejudice. It takes time. First the scales—practice pieces focusing on one aspect of writing, character, action, dialogue. Once you are gaining mastery there, it’s time to branch out and open that first piece of “music”—a major project of some kind. A multi-chapter story or novella, perhaps even a novel. The first time, consciously—even physically—outline the work. Sketch out the details (like the bars in a piece of music) then write each as you go.
After working through several stories, you’ll find that the pieces are starting to develop more organically. The outlines will become more and more vague—from spelling out each major point and action to just an idea of where the story will begin and how it will end. The characters won’t need to be fully described before you begin, they will build their own melody as you write.
One of the hardest parts of writing is the idea that you must practice before you can “play” a major piece. It seems so simple, you communicate every day, you write emails, SMS and texts, you might even compose letters as part of your job. You read books and stories, so it is easy to not practice, to not learn the scales, before attempting to write a piece without that hard work in place. But, as easy as it seems, tt’s also not something to ignore. Practice is important, very important. Giving yourself a day or two a week (or month depending on time/how much you write) to write stories that you never intend to publish—ones that are to hone your skills, help you build characters into believable people—is vital. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just like running scales and using practice pieces before working on that performance piece. In music you do it every day, in writing you should as well.
To outline or not to outline? The answer is yes—to both.
I love bookstores. Well, let me rephrase that, I love what bookstores once were. When I was young, there was a bookstore within a fifteen minute bike ride from my house that was the perfect bookstore. It is the bookstore by which all others are measured in fact.
Nestled between a shoe repair shop and a hair salon, it had been there for as long as I could remember. It had everything a bookstore has to have, including a store cat. I have vague memories of sitting on the floor in the back of the shop where they had a children’s area with blocks and puzzles and asking the cat for advice on a puzzle, or reading out loud to him.
As I grew older, of course, my perceptions changed and it became the bookstore.
It boasted a collection of new and used books. The store was full of the tangy scent of fresh ink and the lovely musty odor unique to used books. Not the used books that are so often the staple of used bookstores today—no these were old books, ancient tomes collected at estate sales and other wonderful places. Books with a story to tell—not just what was written in the book, but the book itself told a tale. Some even had the treasure of the former owner’s names and the date it was received.
Then there were the extra special ones—the ones with the notes handwritten in the margins. For me those were always like the original owner was sharing a secret with me, something we had in common. I still treasure those books. My collection of travel books from the Victorian Era started in that book shop and the very first book I purchased had those secret notes. I still remember one on a page about travel to Egypt, the owner of the book had written “camels are not a pleasant creature.” That tiny thing tied me to the original owner. I felt like I knew him and had shared that adventure with him.
One of the wonderful things was the new books were tucked in with the used ones, so you could find a first edition of Arthur C. Clarke next to a new paperback edition of the same book. It was a wondrous way to discover books I didn’t even know existed. I usually went there with a book in mind, and left with three extra spanning everything from history and science fiction to herbalism and cooking.
The sad thing is, bookstores like this one have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, wiped out by giant asteroids of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Nobles. I miss them, I miss sitting on the floor surrounded by a collection of books some dating from the 1800s and some brand new. I miss finding those gems with notes from a secret friend. And I am sad that there are generations that will never be able to discover this magical lost world.
One of my favorite questions to ask writers is “who are your top ten favorite authors”? Before we go further, let me explain, I am not fishing for a compliment, and don’t expect my name on their list—but there is a name I do expect, but rarely hear—their own. If you ask me—amongst the top ten are Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Peters, Robert B. Parker, Anne McCaffrey, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Conan Doyle and, yes, me. Is it an act of enormous ego? Tossing myself in with some of the finest writers of our time? No, and this goes back to why I asked other writers who their favorite authors are and why they aren’t on that list.
I write stories that I want to read. In fact my first adventure into what is now termed “fanfiction” came about when I had finished all forty of the set of Hardy Boys books my father had purchased at the Goodwill. I was devastated. There were no more stories, and I’d read all the books twice—then I realized, I could write my own adventure! It was a moment of true enlightenment and the beginning of a life-long journey to tell stories, to relate the world through my written words.
If I don’t write what I want to read—and reread—how can I ask others to do the same? If I am not enjoying what I have created, how can I ask a reader to purchase a book or spend time reading a short story? Ovid said scribere jussit amor (love bade me write) and that is the place we should all write from. Love. If you are not in love with your own words, how can you expect anyone else to love them?
I have talked to many writers recently who said they don’t read their own stories, novels, or essays. Why? That is always the first thing out of my mouth, usually followed by the insertion of my foot. I don’t mean to be awkward, I am truly curious, if you are not writing something you want to read, why are you writing? I understand sometimes we get stuck in jobs where not everything we write is what we want to be writing. News, columns, even romance novels sometimes are more about the money than creating something to read again—then again—why not? Even that simple hundred-word news brief is going to be read by many people, so why not make it the best it can be?
Writing should always come from a place of love, a place in the heart reserved for words and their expression. It is the place that stores life experiences and lets us tap into those places to create our stories.
If you are not in your top ten favorite writers, ask yourself this hard question—why? Is it that you see flaws, things that you might have done differently? Is it that you don’t like what you have done? Why? Why don’t you have your books or stories loaded onto your Kindle or Nook or PC to read and read again. Not to the exclusion of others, but because you have told a story you wanted to read, and believe me, if you write stories you will love, I guarantee other people will love them too.
Today, take out a story or book you haven’t read since you put the final edit on it and open it again. Read it, and become one of your own favorite authors.
I have touched on the idea of fanfiction many times over the past few years. People outside fandoms don’t really understand fanfiction—in short it is writing a story based on someone else’s characters and set in their universe. That’s a little simplistic, but the basic idea. I have been writing fanfiction since I first figured out that I could write stories about my favorite characters, starting with the Hardy boys when I was about eight.
But let’s talk about another aspect of fanfiction.
A lot of authors and movie/TV creators look down on the world of fanfiction. In a way I understand, it is someone else messing with your creation—but in another way it is the highest form of flattery people love your stories so much that they want to stay and play.
But that is not what I am talking about (completely) either.
I am talking about fanfiction as a tool for the writer/creator. Reading fanfiction in the worlds you have created gives you as an author an insight into your own world that you will never find in yourself. Seeing the characters, situations and adventures fans create (for better or worse) allows you to see more deeply into your own work. It’s a scary prospect, venturing out into fanfic in your worlds, but well worth it. Finding out where readers are attracted and how they see a character is an eye-opener.
I personally think every author should find someone to read their work, then write fanfiction. Maybe two—or if you are lucky enough to belong to a writing group, have everyone write fanfiction in everyone else’s universes. The insight is amazing! A minor character might suddenly be in the forefront of four or five stories, a certain character trait you thought was awesome is dismissed, the list goes on. It is a valuable tool and a way to hone your skills.
I love words. I collected them like a raven collects shiny bits of things. I horde them, secreting them away to pull out on cold winter nights to look at and savor, to enrich myself with the depth of meaning, the foreign feeling, the difference they offer my life. I love words that are not common, but once were. In fact, I mourn the fact that so many wonderful words have left us to be replaced. For example—zounds as a swear word—once considered out on the edge, it means “by the wounds of God”. Now, just an out of date boring word.
That love of words carries over into my daily life. I love to hear different words, and while I am definitely not adept at learning foreign languages, I do love to have a few little words, small coins in my purse to pull out and trade when I am out of the country. I know how to say thank you in eight or nine languages, hello in seven or eight. And then the odd word that is utterly useless. I know how to say badger in Danish. Which is very useful in almost no conversation ever.
It’s odd, though, that my favorite writers, those that I idolize have very few… “big” words. What I mean is that they write with a simplicity of language, a parcity of words that makes what they have created so much more that mere type on a page. These writers have not fallen into the trap that bigger is better, or even that longer is better. They use a few short phrases and suddenly the beauty or horror, the love or hate they are expressing hits me in the gut and I am there.
One of my idols, Patrick O’Brian, wrote the magnificent Aubrey/Maturin books. The first bookMaster and Commander lacks something, and I know why. He had fallen into the trap he frees himself of later. By book three HMS Surprise, his language is beautiful. Those are books I read as much for the words as I do for the story. I love Jack and Stephen, but the writing is what I truly love. There is a moment in the book where he says “the winds had changed, the song in the rigging dropped by a full octave.” I have no doubt that should I ever sail on a ship is circumstances like that I will know that precise moment. And he does it so simply, so elegantly. No long words, no overblown waxing on. Only fourteen words and you know in your bones what it feels like, what it would be like to be there.
That simplicity is being lost. Of course, there have always been writers that overwrite, but the great writers really don’t. Even during the height of the florid Victorian era, the great writers don’t give you more than you need. Too much sugar ruins the dough, as does too much salt. The balance is difficult.
It’s getting harder for writers to find that balance today. We don’t value words. In a world that blithely accepts words shortened for texting, then allowing them into every day written language we are put to a test. And then we are further faced with the onslaught of new words. Words created merely because someone didn’t know that there was a fabulous word for what they are describing that already existed.
How does this affect me as a writer? It challenges me every time I sit down to write. I want my words to be beautiful. I want the scenes I create to live on, and I want someone to be in a moment and think “this is just like [fill in the blank]”. Will I ever be Patrick O’Brian? Maybe when I am ninety, when I have written hundreds of books and used my “instrument” of writing for many more years, I still doubt it.
Simplicity. As I write I stop myself many times and think “do I really need that word?” I don’t know if it comes from years of writing news and being held to a strict word count, or years of reading O’Brian, Twain, Christie and others, but I look at my work and question every word, every scene. Have I overwritten? Under or over-described? Can a simple word work? And then the biggie—did I just use that word to show off that I know that word whatever it is? For example “mellifluous” do I need to use that word? Or can I say “His voice was like the best chocolate.” It depends, and I need to search myself and decide if I want to use the word for its sake or to show off.
Easy to say, harder to write, but worth the effort every time.
I’ve been asked more than once where I find inspiration for my writing. It’s the question I think writers hear the most, and for many it’s the hardest to explain. In the realm of fantasy and science fiction it’s probably even harder, since so much of what we write is outside the pale. Monsters, spaceships, flying beyond the earth or manipulating reality with magic fill our works, but where are those lurking in our world?
I find my “writing self” is always on. When I walk into a store and see the people’s faces, I wonder who they are, what they’ve seen. I imagine their backstory. The cars parked outside the store are also filled with stories, the families that fill them, the dog waiting patiently on the seat. They all have a story waiting to be told.
Yesterday something wonderful arrived in the mail. Something I have wanted for years. A set of RAF sweetheart wings, a real pair from World War II. When the box arrived, I knew what was in it; I knew the brooch was there. I opened the box, pulled away the bubble wrap and carefully unrolled the plastic it had been shipped in and then… Suddenly…
It was a story.
Because who the person who had originally worn these wings? Was she a mother? Sister? Girlfriend or wife? As I held them the story became more. Who was the man who had given them? Was he a Spitfire pilot? Maybe he was a Mosquito pilot in the Pathfinder service? A whole story formed in my head, the handsome pilot standing quietly, the brooch in his hand, waiting for his sweetheart to arrive. Pinning it on her sweater, then gently kissing her cheek before he left to return to his base. I wonder about him now, if he lived, and about her. I wonder how those wings ended up for auction on ebay.
There could be a fantasy story there, or steampunk, or even science fiction because, for example our pilot might have been part of a top secret project…
Inspiration comes from everywhere, even in the mail.
I love fantasy. It was something that caught my imagination when I was young and, with science fiction, made up the bulk of my reading for many years. Back then, days in the park were full of dragons and knights, dark wizards and heroic journeys. Of course, living in the Pacific Northwest, with its forested areas close to the city, made for a perfect setting because, let’s face it—fantasy happened out there. What do I mean? Fantasy always had a medieval setting, forests and castles, bogs and moors, the cityscape was completely removed from that world. Even C.S. Lewis moved from this world into another. The fantastic just doesn’t happen in a world ruled by science, a world full of cars and airplanes, coffee and computers.
There seem to be vampires and werewolves popping up everywhere. Angst-ridden teens write long sighing love poems and plucky (or hard-boiled) detectives hunt down the denizens of the night. Oh, there might be more than a vampire or two out there, but still it is a world that is primarily paranormal rather than one of fantasy. Somehow we have come through the ages with our belief that the undead (and a few other things) still walk amongst us, but other things were just figments of our ancestors’ superstitious imaginings and have no place in a modern setting.
And we are back at the why in the whole equation.
What is it that keeps us from diving headlong into that world of epic fantasy—only in today’s world? As I sit here mulling the question, I wonder if it’s one better answered by a cultural psychologist. It is a rather interesting idea, why do we readily accept one and not the other?
I have often wondered why those things fell away. Once the world was full of monsters, creatures of light and dark, dragons coursing through the sky, a physical reality that could be altered by a magical presence. Is it a question of rationality? Humanity has grown up, and as adults we no longer need childish things. We see only the facts of the world, the grind of daily life and if something of the other world should cross our path it is a creature of passion or violence—symbolic of a desire to recapture a lost part of ourselves. Other than that, it is dismissed.
But is it gone?
There is a line in the Merlin books by Mary Stewart, where he (Merlin) speaks of the old gods, and how they are still there in the hollow hills, under the ground, in the streams and wells, just no longer acknowledged. They wait, forgotten, until they are remembered again. It’s an elegant notion, and one I think applies to the idea of the elements of fantasy in the modern world. They are all out there. In the forests, the parks, the dark canyons of the wilds and the deep shadows of the cities. All waiting until we see them again.
It’s not childish, I think, to see a dragon lurking in the clouds, or find the fae in the dappled light of a forest grove. With the eye of science firmly in hand, we are unwilling to believe and let these aspects become part of out world. I think it’s the tendency to believe that rationality conquers all. The problem is—we really don’t believe that. Which is why vampires and werewolves still creep into the urban world.
The time has come to embrace it all. Bring fantasy into the modern world—if a vampire can stalk downtown, a dragon can fly overhead. The challenge is to create the world in such a way that the reader can willingly dive into this reality and can accept that their next walk in the park may be filled with something magical, something out of the depths of myth, something truly epic.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.