Showing posts with label creativity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creativity. Show all posts

09 May 2020

You Know More Than You Think You Do


Beach, Relax, Chair, Umbrella, Ocean
Pixabay
I’m taking a break from the Coronavirus news and trying to write more than I usually do every day. I live in Corpus Christi, Texas, where there are lots and lots of sandy beaches. There’s more than one bay beach between the city and Port Aransas and North Padre Island. We’re near Oso Bay. We often drive on a causeway over the Laguna Madre to North Padre Island to get to Port Aransas and drive on the thirteen-mile beach and maybe stop for a meal.
Obviously we like to go to the beach. They were all open for Spring Break. Breakers come from San Antonio, Austin, and as far away as the Dallas/Fort Worth area and even from Minnesota and other states way up north. We don’t go to the beach when the kids are here. Traffic is horrific.

Then they closed all the beaches for a few weeks, and now they’re open again with restrictions. We’ve stayed home, and so I have more time and inclination to write.

We used to own an RV lot in Port Aransas and usually parked there for a good part of the winter. We loved to walk over a boardwalk to the beach.

Then we sold the lot and our motorhome and moved into a “stick” house again. I’m writing more than I did when we traveled everywhere, but not as much as I am now.

So, I came up with this, and hope you find it helpful:

There’s an old adage about writing that is often given as a rule to new writers. The quote states, “Write what you know.”

I’m not here to argue that that’s bad or incorrect advice. I’m here to argue that you know a lot more than you think you do.

It’s implied by that statement that you should only write about what you know firsthand. For example, if you’re going to write about New York City, you should have lived there, or at least visited it. If you’re going to write about sailing a ship, you should have done so many times. And if you’re going to write about a crabby old man, you’d better be one.

Wait. That can’t be right. No, it means that you know enough about NYC by hearsay and researching to do a credible job writing about it. That you know a veteran sailor and can ask him to review what you’ve written for accuracy. And your uncle on your mother’s side (not saying which uncle) was a walking, talking human crab, and you can mimic him extraordinarily well  in your written opus.

If the advice were taken literally, no one could write a story. Writing about a woman, but you’re a man—can’t do it. Writing about a murderer—can’t do it unless you’ve murdered someone. Writing about the War of 1812—not unless you lived there and have come back from the dead or are a time traveler. This also, of course, rules out writing about zombies. Right?

Writers really do write about what they know. They start with certain knowledge, and then they let their imagination take off and carry them to different places, to meet different people, and to make up different situations to create a story. That’s what stories are, after all. They’re made up.

I personally know several men who write brilliantly in women’s points of view. I know other writers who can describe places they’ve never been better than I can, and I’ve been there. Others can spin a yarn that takes your breath away, made out of nothing, it seems. But all these writers are expert at one thing. Observation. The ones who write terrific characters have a great empathy and understanding of human nature. Those who do so well with descriptions have an artist’s eye and can translate what they see, either in real life, in a photo or canvas, or in their own imagination, onto the page. And those who can plot have observed life as a story unfolding before then, have probably read extensively, and learned the mechanics of plotting.

This means if you are determined enough, you can write anything your imagination comes up with and do an excellent job of making it come alive on the page and so believable that your readers can’t put the story down until they’re finished.

This means you can write anything at all, from children’s stories, to young adult stories, to romances, to fantasy, to science fiction, to mysteries, to horror, to suspense, to thrillers, to literary, or any of their subgenres, or make up a genre all your own.

This means you can write for audiences who are younger than six to over one hundred and six years of age. It wouldn’t hurt to read a few books in the genre you want to write in, and to read books in the age range you’re interested in.

So, don’t let the phrase, “write what you know” stop you. Write about what interests you. If you’re unsure about anything you’re written, after some good research, ask someone who knows all about it to read that part of the story, or the whole thing. Read the children’s book to a six-year old. Ask your grandmother to read the one about the “old lady bridge club murders.” Ask a police officer to take a look at the murder scene you’ve written for accuracy. But first, you have to get it written down. Then you can get it vetted by those who know more than you do.

And sure, gloss over what you’re not positive about if it won’t hurt the story. The story is everything. The “known” details give it veracity. Start with something you know. Then let your imagination fly.

Just as I’d love to fly my kite again on the beach. Instead, for a while, it will be my fingers flying over the keyboard to keep me amused and out of trouble.

Stay safe everyone.

Green Coconut Trees Near Body of Water
Pixabay



Writer of short stories (over 70 published), mystery novels (11 published) and non-fiction. Passionate about time management, personal organization, and writing of any kind. Check out my website for more info: www.JanChristensen.com and sign up for my newsletter there.

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

05 August 2019

Bending The Bar


I attended high school so long ago that my class used Roman Numerals. My ninth-grade English teacher was the sister of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she was one of the best--and toughest--teachers I ever had. Because of her, I finished what was then called Junior High School with a better understanding of grammar than any healthy person should have to admit. I earned a "B" from her and was put into the honors English classes in high school because nobody else had earned a "B" from her since the Korean Conflict.

The honors classes all took a diagnostic grammar and usage test the first day, we all scored 177 of a possible 177, and the teacher called that our grammar for the year. We read lots of books, of course, and we did lots of writing, which was graded on our grammar, spelling, punctuation and general usage.

My senior class demanded a research paper of 1000 words, and we had to put footnotes at the bottom of the page and include a bibliography. The teacher promised us she would check our form carefully. I don't remember now whether we had six weeks to complete the assignment, or maybe even eight.

Six weeks, maybe eight, to complete a 1000-word essay. It works out to about 170 words a week, roughly 25 words a day. And we were graded on "correctness," with not a word about style or creativity. I don't remember anything changing in English classes until the 1980s.

In the mid 80s, I found several books that changed my teaching landscape. Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers brought the free-writing idea to daylight. Rico's Writing the Natural Way gave students stylistic models to emulate. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain amplified both Elbow and Rico. Adams's The Care and Feeding of Ideas and Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience set up the ground rules for how this stuff all worked.

Nobody else in my school seemed to notice these books, but they actually taught writing the way writers write: Say something, THEN worry about saying it more effectively or even "correctly."
Clarity and voice came first. For decades, we'd been trying to teach kids to say it right the first time, when we know that doesn't really happen.

Most of the English teachers I know are poor writers because they know grammar and punctuation so well that it gets in their way. When I retired from teaching, it took me about three years to accept that sometimes a sentence fragment works better than being correct.

One of the popular in-jokes was a facsimile lesson plan about teaching children how to walk. It buried the topic in medical jargon and psycho-babble and evaluation buzzwords until it became incoherent and impenetrable. The point was that if we taught kids basic life skills the way we taught them lessons in school, the human race would have died out long ago. (I'm carefully avoiding any mention of sex education here, maybe the only class that should be a performance-based subject...)

Back when I was in high school, golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer both said that when they were learning the game, they were encouraged to hit the ball hard and concentrate on distance. They learned control and finesse later, and their records prove that it was the best way to learn.

That's how it should be with writing. Until you produce enough words to say something, don't worry about spelling or grammar.

Today, I expect to write 1000 words in an hour or so. My personal record for one day, back on an electric typewriter in 1981, is 42 pages, or about 10,000 words. I only had three weeks between the end of a summer grad school class and the beginning of my teaching year, so I just got stuff down on paper to fix later. The book was terrible and I later scrapped it, but that was ten times as many words as I'd done years before in eight weeks.

My second high, done to finish the first draft of a novel before I entered the hospital for surgery, was 7000 words.

If you're a writer, this probably doesn't shock you. I know many writers who set a 2000-word-a-day goal. If we'd asked that of kids in my generation, they would have all joined the Foreign Legion. That's because we were attacking the project from the wrong side. It's like pumping in the water before you dig the swimming pool.

Maybe this is why so many people say they don't write because they can't find a good idea. They may have perfectly good ideas, but they're afraid to begin because they fear doing it "wrong." It's the age old false equivalency over priorities: is it a candy mint or a breath mint?

If you think of your story, even in general terms with very little worked out yet, and start typing, the ideas will come. You may have to do lots of revision, but that's easy when you have material to work with. You can't fix what isn't there. The only document I get right the first time is a check because all I have to do is fill in the blanks. I take three drafts for the average grocery list.

Writing CAN be taught, but we have to teach the right stuff in the right order. It's no good obsessing abut correctness until you have something to "correct." We teach all the skills and have all the standards, but they're in the wrong sequence.

Don't raise the bar, bend it.

Teach kids the fun parts faster. I still remember teachers reading us stories in elementary school or the excitement of sharing our adventures in show-and-tell. Maybe if we kept the story first and worried about the finesse later, kids would grow into adults with more and better stories to share in the first place.

THEN you worry about style. There are dozens of books on grammar and usage--I've mentioned several of them before--but there are only two books I can mention about style, and Strunk and White is only really good for expository essays and academic subjects.

The other would be a required text in any class I taught. If you haven't read this, find a copy. I'm not going to discuss it because that could be another blog all by itself.

When I see kids reading on their screens or tablets instead of books, and watch them text with their thumbs, I have a few seconds of concern. But then I see how quickly they can type and the worry goes away. If they can produce communication that quickly, they can produce many short works quickly to make a longer one, and they can connect with each other. The phone abbreviations and emojis solve many of the concerns we obsessed over, too, like spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

04 September 2015

Creativity: The Dark Side


by R.T. Lawton

Webster's Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002)
     creativity: the ability to create
     creative: 1~ marked by the power or ability to create
     create:  4~ to produce through imaginative skill

For a writer, creativity is a good trait to have. It helps him write a short story, a novel, a poem. With imagination and the ability to create, almost any author has the potential to become published. Blessed with enough creativity, a writer can distinguish himself from the pack and climb to the top of the pyramid. He or she can become a best-selling author.

But with criminals, there is an additional definition from that same dictionary which they find useful for their purposes.
     creative: 3~ managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits

For some criminals, it is this third definition that makes them into successful law breakers, while others get so caught up in their supposed genius ideas that they fail to realize some of the flaws in their thinking and thus end up spending time in a grey-bar hotel. A poster boy for this latter group is the person mentioned by Eve Fisher a couple of months back in her blog about prison conditions. Eve referred to a prisoner who stated that whenever he walked into a room, he knew he was the smartest guy in the room. Eve's comment in reply was that the bar wasn't set very high.

Based on the above two paragraphs, it appears that the good trait of creativity also has a dark side. To look into this situation, various researchers set up studies to evaluate the subject of creativity. While examining the relationship between creativity and personality, researchers Silvia, Haufman, Palmon and Wiggert found that those with lower levels of honesty and humility reported more creative accomplishments and also reported engaging in more creative activities. Who knew? At this point, more research was called for.

one sample of Visual Perception Task
Researchers Gino and Ariely then tested to see if creativity increases dishonesty. Turns out it did. They constructed and ran five different tests. Using a visual perception task, the study participants were asked to count the dots contained on both sides of a line which divided a square into two equal triangles. The number of dots could vary in different samples.

Participants were told they would earn a certain amount of money for choosing the left side triangle as having the most dots, but would earn ten times the amount for choosing the right side triangle as having the most dots. Clearly, the left side triangle had the most dots in fifty of the one hundred samples. In the other fifty samples, some of the dots were clustered closer to the line in order to make the count more ambiguous as to which side contained the most dots. In the ambiguous samples, the participants could more easily "misconceive" the number of dots contained in the right side triangle and thus earn more money. And, those participants who had been tested earlier and found to have more creativity were also found to have a higher level of "misconceiving" the number of dots on the right side.

The result of Gino and Ariely's second study showed that creativity is a better predictor of dishonesty than was intelligence. Thus, I guess, just because you're smart doesn't mean you are also creative, and conversely just because you're lower on the IQ scale doesn't mean you don't have a creative ability.

Their third study showed that people who enter a creative mindset were motivated to think outside the box and this is what led to increased levels of dishonesty. Their fourth study went a step further and showed that the creative mindset led to a justification for their cheating which led to their increased levels of dishonesty. Their fifth study went out into the real world with surveys to employees across seventeen departments. In those departments requiring more creativity in their jobs, the participants disclosed they were more apt to respond to proposed scenarios in an unethical way in order to benefit themselves.

Bottom line: It looks like creativity tends to help people work out original ideas to get around rules by letting them interpret information in a way to benefit themselves while rationalizing their actions. Sounds like most of the characters in my stories, not to mention the criminals I met while working the streets.

Anyway, getting back to authors, I'm going to assume all you writers out there are those creative people on the honest side. As for myself, well, several years ago Rob Lopresti did me a computer software favor and I promised to buy him a beer. Now, here we are three Bouchercons down the road and I still haven't bought him that beer. I could justify my lack of action by saying that I heard Rob doesn't drink, and somewhere in the back of my mind I do think I heard him say something to that effect, but then maybe I'm merely being creatively dishonest. Therefore, to slip into a more creatively CYA mindset, I will now go on record as offering to buy Rob the beverage of his choice at the Raleigh Bouchercon. This offer does not include Dom Perignon. I can't really slide that one past my tax accountant, seeing as how he seems to get a little funny at tax time when he looks at my expense receipts.

So remember my motto: Given enough time, I can explain anything. They just need to give me enough time.