Saturday, May 29, 2010

Keeping the Creativity Faucet Turned On

I'm all for finding ways to improve my writing.

Sometimes when I sit down to write the resulting effort is nothing more than a mess. After such unfruitful sessions, I wonder if I even know how to put a sentence together, or how I have the cheek to call myself a writer at all. At other times, the words flow from my creativity faucet, and I marvel at the miracle of my thought processes. It is at these times I ask myself, “Where do the words come from, and how can I keep inspiration’s faucet turned on?”

These are good questions. In his mentoring programs, the motivational speaker, Anthony Robbins, suggests people can learn to create consistent results in whatever they do.

“If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you'll achieve the same results,” says Robbins.

His advise has helped top professional athletes, Fortune 500 executives, parents, and world leaders achieve consistent results on a variety of subjects. He has helped individuals manage weight, improve relationships, and obtain a better outcome in virtually every domain of life.

So how can using Robbins’s method help us achieve consistent creativity in our writing? We can’t exactly copy another successful writer’s work. That would be unprofessional and unethical. Mr. Robbins clarifies that it is the successful person’s state we should model—reproducing the same strategy and syntax—the order, the timing, and the way in which they do things.

Since writing is a lone endeavor, we might have a difficult time observing another writer’s syntax as he works within the confines of his private office—how he sits in his chair, the routine he carries on before he types the first word, the way he breathes, or any of the tricks he uses in the writing process. If we can't talk to the writer or read about his writing syntax, our only alternative is to analyze ourselves for these intimacies during our more successful bouts with creativity.

When the words are flowing out of us, we need to see what we do and in what order we do them and then repeat that process the next time we write. According to Robbins, if we accurately repeat the steps, something triggers in our brain, and we are able to reproduce the same results as before. My question is this: does the brain cooperate every time, especially if sleep-deprived, or aged, or under the influence of fluctuating hormones? It seems to me brain functionality is more complex than we think and inconsistent at best, even if we use the same syntax every time. And does talent have anything to do with a writer's success? I'd love to talk to Mr. Robbins and pick his brain on the subject.

Strategy is another matter, however. We can observe an author’s strategy: how he uses nouns, verbs and adjectives, how he sets pacing and constructs plot. If we find an author whom we admire and then examine and recreate the formula he uses to write books, perhaps the books we create will end up winners. The trick is to allow our own style to develop and shine as we use the proven techniques.

The only way we'll discover if such a process works is if we practice, practice, practice. Every successful athlete, musician, or writer practices his field of expertise. And it seems logical, the more we apply what we observe, the more adept we’ll become at mimicking strategy and syntax.

You might be skeptical about the success of such a program. I know I was when I first read Robbin's book, Unlimited Power. But so many people swear by his methods. We may not become bestsellers *or maybe we will* but if we apply Robbin's techniques to our writing, we might actually become better writers. That result, in and of itself, makes me think his ideas might be worth a try.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Last Manuscript

If you, a writer, were dying and you had time to create a last work, cork it in a bottle, and throw it into the ocean for someone to discover later, what message would that work portray?

I’ve thought about this long and hard since I listened to and watched Randy Pousch’s The Last Lecture. The doctors diagnosed this Virtual Reality professor of Carnegie Mellon University with pancreatic cancer in 2006, and he spent the last two years on earth lecturing, leaving a legacy that has inspired a multitude. He didn’t sulk. He didn’t give up hope; he handled the inconveniences of his disease with a positive outlook, even though he would leave behind three young children and a wife who adored him.

Think about it. What would you want people to know about you if you weren’t going to be around for long? What could you possibly write that would sufficiently portray who you are as a writer? Would you want to leave something that would last through time, to be read like the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer in classrooms around the world? Or would you direct your words to a more intimate setting, like your family? Would you leave out certain words or ideas that might taint your readers' minds? Or would your words become more potent, more angry, more shocking?

After much thought on this question, my answer is this: I would write exactly the book I'm writing right now. Maybe I would better use every spare moment I have to get the words down on paper, to complete the task more quickly. Maybe I'd find more courage to consult with experts and find beta readers, realizing that what I want my reader to know is plausible if they will just keep an open mind. The thought excites me, fuels my muse, and silences the negative voices that would hold me back.

For I am a writer and a human being, and I have something to say. Thankfully I don't have ten tumors vying for my time right now, but the question spurs me on to treat whatever time I have left on this earth as a laboratory for creating the best I have within me.

I hope the thought does the same for you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Using Or Not Using Prologues

Upon returning from a writer’s conference, a member of my writer’s group informed us that editors and agents hate prologues. Since I had just read the group my WIP’s prologue, her revelation made my heart sag. I was quite pleased with what I had written. I introduced vital back-story in a pertinent character’s viewpoint, which was the one and only chance for this character to express himself before his demise would silence him forever.

That got me to thinking—and researching—about when we should use prologues in our fiction. The online consensus about the nasty little setup pages brought me to conclude that more readers *and editors* are against them than are for them.

Really? Why? I love a good prologue. I never skip them because I’m afraid I’ll lose out on vital information the author placed there to help me understand the plot. If done well, they can enhance a story.

I imagine editors get tired of reading misfit prologues. One editor said she could count on one hand how many necessary and successful prologues she has read in her years as an editor. Another suggests a new author avoid using a prologue if he really wants his manuscript considered. So when may a writer use a prologue or is it best to avoid them altogether? My research uncovered the following.

A writer may include a prologue if it:

Provides critical information – You should never use this information elsewhere, and it should provide necessary enhancement to the plot. However, if you can weave that information throughout the rest of the novel then eliminate the prologue all together. If the story makes sense without the prologue, you don’t need 3-5 pages more to bog it down. If you hold doubts about whether the information is important enough to stand on its own, consider making it chapter one, even if it takes place in a another time period.

Provides more than mood or action – If your purpose is to set the mood or hook someone into the story with action, then get rid of the prologue. You can do those two things in the body of your story. Using these ploys might suggest to the editor your first chapter is weak.

If you do use a prologue, make sure  it is short, relevant and in the same style as the rest of the book. Since using a prologue is asking the reader to start the story twice, make sure this addition is brief and supplies the missing elements that make the plot clear as it progresses. When submitting your manuscript for consideration, include the prologue with what you send.

After all this advise, I still love a good prologue. As I rush to the completion of my manuscript, I'll consider and weigh whether mine contains information I can slip into the body of the story or not. I want the best chance possible to impress an agent or editor. Even if the setup pages are well written, I have to be willing to sacrifice them for a sale.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Late Blooming, But Present and Accounted For

I think I’m a late bloomer—you know, the kind of girl who stumbles through her early years lanky and boyish, whose body holds back until after all her friends develop from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. Except my underdevelopment has nothing to do with looks but instead revolves around a fascination with books and reading them.

I’m confused about this enigma of my history, really. From an early age, my father collected books and couldn’t put his latest read down before he purchased another. Today his library holds over 5,000 volumes on various subjects and schools of thought. He also taught me to read before I attended kindergarten. I swelled with pride that I could read words my fellow classmates struggled to decipher. My teachers placed me in the advanced readers while the rest of my friends had to drudge through the regular curricula for our grade level. In other words, I had all the tools at hand, yet I lacked the one thing that would have aided my present hunger to write books: the desire to read.

I’m not saying I didn’t read at all. I had my favorites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series, Caroline D. Emerson’s The Magic Tunnel, and later Daphne Dumaurier’s Rebecca. But as a young girl, I had much rather my parents find me skating around the block or winning at tetherball than find me cooped up in my room reading a book. I never read the classics; somehow my teachers hadn’t required such in-depth study. Nor did I care about Nancy Drew or any of the other popular fiction that other kids were reading.

I did, however, enjoy writing stories and poetry. My first poem appeared in a hometown newspaper in 1960, and I often submitted short stories for my elementary school’s student publication. Yet until I entered the eighth grade and won my first creative writing contest, becoming a writer hadn’t even occurred to me. Why would it? I still skewed my nose at the thought of diving into a book when there were so many more interesting things to do, like drooling over boys and listening to the latest Beetles tune. Reading back then made my head hurt and sent me running for open air.

I often wondered if my elementary school’s Nazi librarian had anything to do with my disenchantment. Well, she wasn’t exactly a Nazi, but her stern demeanor and maniacal penchant for embarrassing students who couldn’t answer her Spanish Inquisition about the Dewey Decimal system frightened me. Every time my class’s weekly required library sessions rolled around, my stomach balled into a knot, and I found any excuse I could to stay home from school that day. I have no doubt the school authorities were trying to expand our young minds, guiding us toward the realm of reading, but their well-intentions only invoked fear in my heart each time I stepped across the library’s threshold.

Today my world has blossomed because of books. I love to read, can’t find enough spare time to stick my nose into the latest novel. I struggle to balance my time between reading and writing and all the other billions of tasks I juggle in the air. I can hardly manage patience because I want an author to sweep me away to England to learn about Shakespeare’s missing manuscript, or fly me all over the world to discover and put into place the six missing pillars that will save the world. I feel like I’m in a race to catch up with all of you who have thousands more reading experiences tucked under your belts than I do. And that doesn’t even account for the umpteen research tomes I’m pouring through that will help me make my WIP more interesting. My current library is growing on a weekly basis, and I haven’t even scoured through the pile of books reaching to the ceiling on my bedside table yet. Time just isn’t cooperating.

I wonder if they have a book about resisting our urges to purchase new books before finishing the ones we already possess?

I bet they do. As a Mother's Day gift to myself, I’ll have to check that out on Amazon tomorrow.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On What Wall Is Your Ladder Leaning?

Last week I started reading a novel (I won’t mention the author’s name) that began well enough, but about half way through the plot the author ventured into the most graphic sex scene I had ever come across. I stopped reading, threw the book in the recycle can (hoping the pages would be put to better use) and started searching for prose worth my time. Now I ask you, I know sex sells, but are our efforts to become great writers enhanced by writing pornography? Wouldn’t we better spend our time lifting souls and encouraging others through our words?

That author is probably laughing all the way to the bank. After all, I helped fund her future projects by buying her book in the first place. Though I’ve added her name to my black list of stinky authors, I’ve already helped to further the demise of morality in the world with my purchase. Not to be a prude, but honestly, why can’t we leave the most sacred of acts behind our bedroom doors and write something that can pull us out of the trash receptacles of life?

A wise man, Boyd K. Packer, once expressed my sentiments in a perfect analogy: “There are many who struggle and climb and finally reach the top of the ladder, only to find out that it is leaning against the wrong wall.”

If we have to struggle and climb to the top, why not reflect the best of what life has to offer? Of course, the plots we create must reflect opposition to make the story interesting, but the sole use of the lurid and the degrading, just to sell a book, saddens me beyond expression. I can’t help think those authors will one day find themselves under the heavy hand of heaven’s task masters erasing their words with their noses.

Some might argue that free expression is what makes our vocation important. Yes, that freedom is important. But I believe the way we use our gift, either for sensationalism or for helping people discover the best they possess within them, matters far more than we realize. And if I’m wrong--well, I’d rather be on the side of honor and decency, than on the dark side, enticing the worst from my readers.

Were we put here on this earth for good or for evil? Whether we believe in God or not, something inside tells me we already know what wall we need to scale. And in this day and age, we have no time to waste. We'd better start climbing as fast and high as possible.