Showing posts with label writing techniques. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing techniques. Show all posts

01 April 2019

Cats and Writing

I've had a few weeks to adjust to Daylight Savings Time now. I like driving to and maybe even home from an open mic with some light in the sky. At my age and with cataract surgery several years behind me, night vision isn't one of my strengths. And getting up in the morning isn't an issue because our bedroom isn't on the sunny side of our condo.

Besides, the time on the clock isn't an issue. We arrange our lives around our cat.

Ernie came to us as a rescue nearly ten years ago, along with his adopted sister Jewel. Ernie was just over a year old--he'll be eleven in April--and Jewel was seven months older. They were a bonded couple and amused each other--and us--constantly with their telepathy. Unfortunately, as often happens, they both had health issues. Jewel died about sixteen months ago and Ernie, who had been with her since he was eight weeks old, was even more devastated than we were. He's a Maine coon, which means he pretty resilient, but he needed about a month to reinvent his bearings. Fortunately, he's also creative and social.

Now, even more than before, Ernie decides when it's time to get up. During the night, he'll knock my alarm clock off my nightstand because it's redundant, and he walks across me and chirps when he wants attention. He doesn't need that clock or sunlight to know when it's time for breakfast because his stomach is more accurate than the Naval Observatory. At 6:45, he tells me he's hungry, even though it's not true.
He munches on prescription dry food all night so the dish is practically empty when I go downstairs. I'll refill it and put out prescription canned food (He has stage two kidney disease, which he's held at bay for two years now), but he won't come downstairs until my wife does so he can help her read the newspaper. Since he's a guy, he prefers the sports section, but he'll settle for the comics.

 After that, he wants me at my desk writing.

That's not negotiable. An hour later, he wants me to run a cup of water for him in the bathroom. Yes, he has a fountain downstairs, but now's not the time for that. He wants me at my desk for between 60 and 90 minutes, then he want either me or Barb to lie on the bed so he can cuddle for about 15 minutes. It recharges both of us.

In the afternoon, if I'm typing, he'll try to crawl into my lap between 1:50 and 2:10 because that's snack time. No argument. He may not have even been downstairs all morning, but now we put out dry food. He wants his non-prescription canned food (Which contains the cleverly-crushed blood pressure pill) at 4:30, but we try to stall until 5:00.

After that feeding, we get by without further guidance or supervision. He'll hang out in the office if one of us is at the computer, or he may come down to join us if we're watching TV (He doesn't get the point of women's basketball at all), but the evening is basically our own.

The plus side of this, besides having a very affectionate cat who likes to take care of us, is that we've learned to work in increments of 75 to 90 minute and then take a short break to replenish the energy. Granted, if I'm in the middle of a scene, I don't want to stop, but he's trained me to keep thinking about what I'm writing while he walks across me, and sometimes that few extra minutes gives me time to think of that snappy comeback that you always think of after losing the argument. If I'm not going to the health club or an open mic or shopping that day, I can do five or six 60-to-90 minute stretches of writing. Getting out of the chair to move helps my less than pristine back, too.

When Barb is rehearsing lines for a play (She averages about five productions a year), he's willing to sit and listen to her. He never gives her direction, but if she can't hold his interest, he'll curl up, tuck his tail over his nose, and go to sleep. Tough critics, cats.

But they train us well.

I know O'Neil has a cat or cats, and I think other writers on this blog have dogs, cats, or both. How many of them help you write?

03 June 2017

Zoning Out

All of us have heard of it, and all of us have experienced it, from time to time (but never enough, it seems). It's special and wonderful and elusive--and no, it's not fame or fortune. What am I talking about?

It's something I've often heard called the Hot Zone, or just the Zone. It's a feeling, or a state of mind, that we as writers are sometimes able to achieve, and when we're reached it our ideas seem to blossom and the words seem to flow and the whole world just seems right. When we're in the Zone we're invincible, unstoppable; we can do no wrong. Author Carolyn Wheat once said, "Getting to that state, and staying there for as long as possible, is the key to writing success."

I used to play a lot of golf, and even though I'm weary of sports analogies, I can still recall the warm and weird "feeling" that came with the confidence of sometimes knowing, during a swing, that the ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it to go. (That feeling was rare, and many of the balls I hit have never been found--but when the sensation was there, it was exhilarating.) The same thing happens occasionally during other activities, including some of my writing sessions.

But I was serious when I said it's elusive. Ariel Gore observed, in her book How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead, "Where do I go to write a story? I don't. I just sit here, waiting and waiting and waiting till the story begins to come to me. Then I sit very, very, very still and try not to scare it off. If I grab at it, it might run under the sofa and hide."

John Simmons, in a piece he wrote for Writers & Artists, said, ". . . When I'm in that zone, I'm not always aware of it. It's a wonderful feeing when you realise afterwards that you've been there. I think it's part of the addiction of being a writer."

More quotes:

"An athlete has her training schedule, the date of the event stamped in her mind, the excitement of the crowded stadium to trigger her best. An actor has his script, his rehearsals and, when it matters, the glare of the lighted stage. The writer has nothing. Hence all the mad little rituals we hear about, having to use a 4H pencil, a Moleskine notebook, having to be in a particular spot, in a certain room, at exactly this time of day, drinking this kind of tea, smoking this brand of cigarette. All desperate attempts to propitiate inspiration, to have ordinariness and originality somehow intersect." -- Tim Parks, "The Writer's Zone."

"The runner's zone is a situation that occurs when you have run for a long time, and your body finds a 'place' where it hits its peak performance. Your body synchronizes your breaths and moves more efficiently. When a writer gets in the zone, inspiration, imagination, posture, keyboard command, focus and concentration, and even the perfect amount of emotion all settle in, making us type much faster, make fewer mistakes, automatically correct the mistakes we do make, and essentially enter a supercharged writing mode." -- Scott Kuttner, "How to Find the Writing Zone and Stay There"

It even got mentioned in the current crime novel I'm reading (Home, by Harlan Coben). The book's protagonist, former NBA star Myron Bolitar, is watching his nephew play basketball in Myron's old high-school gym, and Coben says, "You could see it right away. The greatness. Myron studied his nephew's face and saw that look of what they called 'being in the zone,' focused yet relaxed, on edge yet laid back, whatever terminology you wanted to use, but really it could all be summed up in one word. Home. When Mickey was on the court, like his uncle before him, he was home."

The big question, then, is how do we writers ensure that we reach this mystical place, often and regularly? Well, everybody has different ideas about that. Peter Shallard, in his article "Psychological Tips for Getting in the Writing Zone," said, "Hardly anyone knows how to get in the zone to produce top quality written material. This is about having the state of creativity (or productivity, or whatever is relevant) on tap . . . ready to go, whenever you need it."

Z marks the spot

So how DO we find our way into the Zone? As always, most treasure maps are false, or at least misleading. I've found that some of the "hints" we're given in how-to-write books are maddeningly vague: clear your head, breathe deeply, meditate, find your rhythm, leave your troubles behind, etc. That kind of advice is no help to me--or, I suspect, to anyone else. Of course we need to clear our heads of everything except writing, in order to do our best work. But how?

The following is one of those "do as I say" lists, rather than "do as I do," since I don't seem to be able to make myself obey these rules. But a lot of my writing friends swear that these are the things they do to increase their chances to reach (and frolic in) the flowery meadows and bubbling fountains of the Writing Zone.

1. Write in the same place every day.

This could be the desk in your home office, a recliner in your den, a chair on your sun deck, a swing in your back yard, or anyplace that just feels "right" and comfortable. But let's face it, most writers have schedules that make this hard to do, at least for any length of time. For some, it might be a seat on the commuter train to the office and back. Whatever works.

2. Write at the same time every day.

This is another rule that, for many of us, might or might not be possible. If your daily routine allows it, I can see that it could help. And I've heard that the time should be early in the day rather than late, because our minds are fresher before facing all our daily non-writing problems. Again, if you can do this, fine. Since I'm a night-owl anyhow, most of my fiction is produced in the wee hours (the midnight zone?)--but I don't assign myself a time slot. I can, and do, write pretty much anytime, and anyplace.

3. Surround yourself with encouraging/inspiring sounds.

Many writers say they require a certain kind of music during their writing sessions; others prefer a busy public place with people-noises, like a coffeeshop or the food court in the mall--or a city park with the soothing sounds of birds and traffic and laughing children. I even know writers who use white-noise machines or tapes of rain on the roof or of seagulls and the surf. What I prefer, like Simon and Garfunkel, is the sound of silence. I'm not a solitary person, usually: I like to have things going on around me. But when I write, I want it quiet.

Game analysis and zone defense

If I had to assign percentages, I'd guess that at least half my writer buddies make a sincere attempt to follow the three rules I mentioned. And I say More power to 'em--if that helps, do it. If I did it, I might create better stories, or at least create them faster. But we all have our own methods, and I've been fortunate enough to somehow reach that strange and hypnotic plateau pretty regularly without knowing for sure how I got there.

What do you do, to maximize your writing efficiency/productivity? Is this "zone" state of mind something that happens to you often, or seldom? Do you write in the same location every day? Same time(s)? Do you listen to classical music while you work? Jazz? Rock? Country? The sounds of nature? The Mystic Moods Orchestra?

To each his own.

And by the way, sincere congratulations to my old friend and fellow SleuthSayer O'Neil De Noux, for being nominated earlier this week for a Shamus. Well done!!

16 December 2015

From the shiny new desk of Robert Lopresti

Old writer at old desk
by Robert Lopresti

I am working mostly at home for the next few months, and my wife said: "We've  had this desk for thirty years.  Let's get you a better one."  I  thought that was a great idea and added a detail: let's make it a standup/sit down desk.

And that's what we wound up with.  You can see it in the pictures.  There are four pre-set buttons.  If I want to work standing up I press 3 and it floats to the proper height.  Press 4 and it sinks down again.  Terri touches 2 to get to her perfect standing position.

All of which is nice, but how exactly does it relate to the business of this blog: reading and writing mystery fiction?  Well, we'll get to that.

Back in October I mentioned that something happened at Bouchercon which I wasn't going to describe because I intended to turn into a short story.  A couple of weeks went by and that basic idea had refused to turn into a story plot.  Then I remembered a book I had picked up at Sasquan, the World Science Fiction Convention, I attended in August.
From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds is a little paperback by Ken Rand.  The title attracted me because I have a notebook containing a few hundred ideas that have never resolved into stories.  I wasn't expecting Mr. Rand to supply any miracles, and of course he doesn't.  Mostly he offers some interesting metaphors (although he describes himself as "metaphor challenged") and some exercises.

He spends a lot of time working on ways to get the Left Brain (the Editor) out of the way of the Right Brain (the Author).   "Why is your left brain such a jerk?" he asks.

Personally, I don't like the hemisphere stuff; it strikes me as biological reductionism (in normal people the two halves of the brain do communicate, after all).  I prefer to use the terms Miner and Jeweler.  But I do understand the importance of giving the Miner as much room as possible, and Rand has some useful thoughts about that.

For example: "The best drug ever prescribed, in my opinion, is placebo.  (Until recently.  I've switched to New, Improved Instant Placebo (R), in mint-flavored gel caps.)"  

In other words, when it comes to stoking creativity, whatever you think works, really does work.  And in that sense my new desk (remember my new desk?) can be seen as a placebo.  I know that I can't give the creative part of my brain orders but I can flatter or if you prefer bribe it by spending money.  Go to a conference.  Buy Ken Rand's book.  Get a new desk.

Old and cramped
Why does that work? I think in most people the creative part of the brain, the Miner, is lazy because it has been trained to be lazy.  You say that if you got a great idea you'd run like a cheetah straight to the keyboard, but when a light bulb does present itself you turn on  a Simpsons rerun instead.  Spending money and/or time convinces the Miner that you will take its work seriously.  (And of course, if you spend big bucks you will feel obligated to do something to justify it... see how it all comes around?)

 Of course, there's more to my desk than that.  It's a better work station and that helps with organization and writing.  Plus the stand-up aspect is great for my increasingly middle-aged back.

But lets get back to Rand.  How did his 90-seconds approach connect to my Bouchercon-inspired story idea?   Well, what follows combines his method with my own.

* I sat down with a pen and paper, far from my magical stand-up desk.  (Rand recommends separating the Author tasks from those of the Editor in as many physical ways as is practical.  Generally I Write analog and Edit digital.)
Old desk's moment of fame
* I wrote down my original idea.
* I wrote down in one sentence each the three unsatisfactory story plots I had hatched so far.  (Rand says: throw out the first few plots you get from an idea; those are the easy cliches.  In songwriting we say, when you start with a set of lyrics, throw out the first few tunes that come to mind.)
* With an eye on the clock I started writing down a new story structure, using pieces of those first three plots.

So, did I really come up with a satisfactory story plot in ninety seconds?

It only took seventy.  And, of course, I don't know whether I will really shape up into something publishable.  In a few years, we will find out I guess.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go back to my desk...

16 March 2013


by John M. Floyd

As you probably know, most of us at this blog like to read mysteries, write mysteries, and talk about mysteries. Why else would we call ourselves sleuthsayers, right?

Some of us occasionally enjoy reading and writing in other genres as well--fantasy, Western, sci-fi, romance, horror, etc. And sometimes even in that hard-to-describe-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it category that's not a genre at all: literary.

At the time of this writing, I'm lucky enough to have short stories in the current issues of two publications: Woman's World (March 18, 2013) and The Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2013). They are vastly different markets, in content and format and just about everything else. WW is easy to find, has been around for a long time, and publishes 104 stories a year--one mystery and one romance every week. The Post is hard to find (I located a copy only yesterday of the issue that contains my story), has been around for a very long time, and publishes (I think) six pieces of fiction a year. And my two stories are as different as the two magazines. My 700-word WW mystery is a lighthearted whodunit with series characters, while my 2600-word SEP story deals with relationships, loss, and hope, and features a protagonist who "changes" as a result of what he sees and learns in the course of the story. By definition, I suppose the first one is genre and the second one is literary.

The thing I'd like to focus on, though, is that my SEP story follows a structure that I've always liked, and that I've occasionally found handy to use: it's a frame narrative.

Thinking inside the box

I think of frame stories as those that are told by one character to another, and that create a story within a story. The first (I'll call it the "wraparound") story is begun in the present, then takes the reader into the past, where the second (main) story is told--often in its entirety. I sometimes picture the second story as a really long flashback. When it finishes, the reader is brought back to the present, and the first story then ends as well.

In Stephen King's The Green Mile, the wraparound story involves the protagonist as an old man in a nursing home who tells his friend a long tale about a life-changing incident that happened to him as a young prison guard. The "main" story takes place sixty years in the past, and when it's completed the wraparound story picks up again, at the nursing home. By that time the reader, who has been "listening" to the narrative along with the friend, has now come to care deeply about the lead character as both a young man and an old man, and wants to hear "the rest of the story." In my opinion, framing the book in this way made it a more effective, satisfying, and memorable novel. It also allowed the writer to tell two stories in one, and to reveal a couple of big surprises at the end that were set up in the middle.

Other examples of novel-length frame stories are Wuthering HeightsFrankensteinEthan Frome, and The Princess Bride. Short stories that come to mind are Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" and Stephen King's "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

Fringe benefits

Another reason I think frame narratives can be successful is that they demonstrate the time-proven technique sometimes called a circular ending or a full-circle story. This happens when the story or novel or movie begins at a certain place or with a certain scene or event, and then ends either in that same physical location or with the characters performing that same activity. Why does this always seem to work well? Who knows. Maybe it goes back to the traditional "hero's journey" structure, where the protagonist leaves his familiar routine, embarks on his quest for adventure, confronts his enemies, and eventually returns--a now older and wiser person--to his routine. Or maybe it's because we as readers and viewers silently yearn for a sense of order and logic to our daily lives and endeavors, and (by extension) to the fictional stories that are supposed to be a metaphor for those lives. The circular ending just feels right.

Examples of these full-circle storylines: The Wizard of Oz (opens and closes with Dorothy at the farm), The Searchers (starts and ends with the view of Monument Valley through the open cabin door), To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus Finch's house), Lonesome Dove (the town of Lonesome Dove, Texas), The Lord of the Rings (the Shire), Pulp Fiction (the same L.A. restaurant), Shane (the little boy watching the gunfighter approach/disappear in the distance), While You Were Sleeping (the train station), Escape From New York (Liberty Island), The Natural (starts with the little boy playing catch with his father, ends with the grown-up boy playing catch with his son), Forrest Gump (the white feather blowing in the wind), High Noon (Will Kane and his bride, standing together with the whole town watching), and many others. Not all stories that have circular endings are frame narratives, of course, but all framed narratives have--at least to some degree--circular endings.

When should a frame story be used?

Again, who can say? I suppose it should be used anytime it might add to the impact or clarity of the story. (Introducing a character as a narrator is effective even when "framing" isn't used.) Another way to look at this is to ask a related question: When should you use bookends? The answer might be "Use them whenever what they support can't stand up on its own." If a before-and-after story can "prop up" another story set in the past, the frame-narrative technique is probably a good option. Also, the project of course has to be long enough to be able to sustain a second storyline.

Over the nineteen years that I've been writing for publication, I've probably used frame stories a dozen or so times. In each case, I felt that it added depth to the story in a way that I couldn't accomplish otherwise--although a more talented writer might have been able to do it with a single storyline.

Have any of you used this approach with your own novels or short stories? Have you noticed or approved of its use in the fiction that you've read? Would you be willing to use it in future projects if you feel it might help?

I consider it just another item in my writer's toolbox, ready and waiting in case I need it. You can never have too many of those.