Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writers as Students of the Universe

Most writers figure out pretty quickly that in order to write and write well they must be lifetime students of human behavior. It is a lesson early learned by a writer of any stripe. Here's why.

If the writer isn't a student of human behavior, animal behavior, even plant behavior the writing he produces will be stale, boring, and strumming away on one note. If the writer lives only in the world of his own thoughts and conclusions, his own behavior and reaction to the world, he constricts his own ability to create something original. In fact he smothers it.

Whether a fiction writer, a journalist, a copywriter or any combination or discipline the serious writer must study people. The writer messes around in other people's minds, observes personality quirks. What makes them tick? He observes their actions. How do they move? How do they speak (accents? speech impediments? overly loud or soft?) with gestures or without. Their size, their attitudes, their manner, their emotions, ethnicity and thought processes. All of it matters to the writer.

If a writer is writing to sell (copywriting and advertising), he needs to understand the psychology of people and what motivates them to buy one product over another.

If the writer strives to be a journalist then he's communicating facts and helping his reader understand what makes others tick.

Fiction is another breed altogether. It’s the place where a writer needs to not only understand what makes the characters he's created tick, but to convey to the reader their essence.

Understand every writer must be (and is) a student of the human condition, the whole wide universe's condition.

A serious writer's goal is to make the words set on paper or up on the computer screen sing. To use them to captivate the reader to whatever purpose and end that writer applies it. The writing must be infused with truth and reality to give it life. The best way to capture readers’ interest is to understand them. So the writer either consciously or unconsciously trains himself to always be receptive to what is going on around him and to learn from it, absorb something from it.

For the new and evolving writer a couple of hints as to how to develop the writer's observational skill follows. For starters, it's a great idea to take a field trip. Go somewhere public. Hang out at a bus stop. Go to the pool. (Skip the library for now, while it may harbor some interesting characters, it’s just too darn quiet for beginners.) Go to a sports game or visit a casino in Vegas (unless under the age of 21, of course).

While doing any of those things its a good idea for the writer to remember why he's there – to be an observer of people, places and things. It's way too easy once in position to completely forget what instigated the field trip and just immerse in the experience. That's not bad either, but a different writer's experience from the conscious observation mode.

In immersion mode it's simply absorb unconsciously like a sponge time.

In observation mode it's tune in, listen for accents, watch for how people carry themselves. Turn the writer's ear to bits of conversation (this isn’t really eves-dropping…well maybe it is, but in any event, paying attention returns benefits). This is the place where the writer can learn what motivates people, what they’re angry about, what they long for, even get an idea for a new story or a hook for that sales copy. It’s amazing the things people spill in public at restaurants, games, or just walking on the sidewalk.

When a writer relates what was observed and learned to his own life's experiences and feelings he soon gets a better, more complete feeling for people – his own kind - characters. The wise writer usually has a way to take notes of such observances. A pad and pen, talk into your iPod or whatever, but notes are important. If the writer doesn't make a habit of noting the sound of voices, words used, physical attributes, anything that is interesting, they're all too easily lost from the conscious mind. Writing them down or speaking observations helps to instill them into easily retrievable bits. Such notes will probably never be used verbatim for anything, but the act of writing it, somehow noting the events, cements ideas and observations in memory.

The observation exercise is a great way to keep the writer's edge sharp, to cultivate an open mind and lively curiosity. Even better once done consciously a few times it becomes ingrained and ideas will sprout like blades of grass under foot. From there living, breathing characters with real feelings and real quirks will emerge in the fiction written. The writer will get a better take on writing instruction manuals that real people will actually understand. And in his writing arsenal will be a tool that can be used when writing advertising copy allowing the writer to speak directly to the buying audience.

Not bad for a day at the park, Vegas, the ballgame, the subway or the zoo.

And speaking of the zoo - how about those animals???

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Embracing the Rewrite

Most of us writers believe whatever we first put down on paper or type to computer screen should be fabulous, complete, amazing. One gets a bit of a pain in the gut when thinking of pruning the work, but, while we may spare a few of our darlings here and there the truth of the matter is Faulker was right. His point was on track. Writing the work is just half the battle.

Next comes the editing and rewrite. Now editing isn't just looking for grammatical and spelling errors, it's training your eye to watch for what is and isn't readable. What is and isn't clear. It's turning sentences around to give them more punch, watching for words you stuck in just to show off you know what it means and watching for inconsistencies or omissions.

Sooner or later you'll be working with an editor. Like any other field there are wonderful editors, okay editors and bad editors.  There are also personality clashes that can give each of you an opinion of the other that isn't necessarily accurate.  Hopefully you'll actually like the editor you work with and even if you don't agree with every suggestion and tweak, listen to them, filter them through your own style and you'll come out with a better book.

Many times you’ll find as you write, that your original ‘great idea’ is overwhelmed by the actual story. By that I mean you’ll range far afield from the beginning inspiration that got you moving in the first place. And you’re going to find that many of your truly great thoughts and ideas will occur to you when you’re actually writing – sitting at your computer or with your legal pad in your lap – not just daydreaming and thinking about writing. So, despite your greatest hopes that your material will emerge complete and awesome at the first stroke, don’t count on it. This tripping off in other directions creates a great story, but it does leave some bumpy writing that needs tidying and ideas that need completing or revising. Don't fight it, just do it.

Many self-proclaimed ‘writers’ want us to believe they carry all their ideas around in their heads until they can get the time to spew them down onto paper – no doubt in pristine form. However, how many of them actually do it? Presuming you’re one who actually writes, don’t get caught in that ‘romantic, artistic’ web of silliness where you believe you can work it all out in your head and write it all down later. There may have been one or two who could do it, but frankly I think they’re fibbing too.

Don’t make yourself crazy by believing there’s an entire army of writers out there who can turn out perfect work at first stroke while you struggle with every sentence. It’s self-destructive and it could prevent you from spreading your wings and doing the sweat work to make your writing sparkle like the gem it is. Hey, a  diamond  is just a rock until it’s cut and polished.

So don’t wail and weep when you confront your rewrite, celebrate. You’ve got the guts down on paper, now is the time to really shine and turn that heap of guts into a god.

Write, edit and rewrite - remember every writer started somewhere. Every writer (or almost every one) wanted to scream and throw things the first time his or her book ran up against an editor who suggested changes. Throw your little tantrum in private. The vast majority of us do. Then reread the editor's marks and suggestions and really think about it. If you're honest with yourself you're going to see some truths in there. And, if you're willing to do the work, and there is a lot of work to getting that book out, the editing process, no matter how you do it, will help you produce a work you're really proud of.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing the Fantastical and the Paranormal

If you're a writer I don't know how you could have missed the current Paranormal and Fantastical trend.  It ain't just for kids, it's captured the imagination of nearly everyone. You have your vampires, your werewolves, your psychics, magicians, ancient gods, witches (good and bad), demons, shamans, ghosts, fairies, et al.

Lots and lots of choices out there.  Many genres in which the fantastical and paranormal will work well.  Romances are big on the paranormal right now, then there's horror, and even westerns seem to have possibilities.  SciFi accommodates the paranormal as well.

So if it appeals to you, if it grabs you, it might be a place for you to plunk down some new writing roots.

Here's the interesting thing about writing the Paranormal and Fantastical.  Lots of things we think of as weird or unreal actually have some basis in fact, history or superstition and can be well researched to find out interesting and odd facts.  That allows you the opportunity to inject your own peculiar perspective.  Frequently we wonder, what if there is some other dimension, some other turn to our own reality.  That shadow that flitted past the edge of your vision, the peculiar wind that popped up out of nowhere, the chill in a room when the heat is running full blast, the flap of wings over head - yet nothing is seen.  Those and so many other things, not to mention our age old fear of the dark lend themselves to incredible stories. 

A couple of examples.  Vampires were pretty much made famous when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.  Of course he wrote that about a hundred years after 'real' vampire outbreaks in Europe.  Strangely, or maybe not so much, Vampires could well have been people believed to have died buried in shallow graves who then clawed their way out to return to their village - to be labeled vampires and killed for real.  Then there are the legends in Serbia that vampires took to the night in the form of (really, folks thought this) spiders, lice, bugs, dogs & cats who hosted them, frogs and toads).  A little research will get you a lot.

Psychics are an interesting lot.  They bear a reputation as charlatans, but there are the rare ones who are for real.  There are also precognitive moments and deja vu. They can just know something, they can have visions.  Their take on things can be fairly clear or more like a puzzle to be solved.  They can see and communicate with the dead or see the future and sometimes the past.  A wide range of abilities.

Werewolves go back as far as the Greeks and terrified the Europeans way back.  The Norse and Icelandic myths are even more interesting  mythology believing a man can shift into an animal (mostly into wolves, but not exclusively so) by leaving his human body behind and entering the body of an animal.  Neat trick!

The world we live in is racing forward at light speed, exploring new horizons, trying to get  a handle on what is real.  And yet,   mythology, supersition, and the unknown, the scientifically unexplained remain.  People hunger for stories that explore these realms.  They want to stretch their imaginations to wonder at crop circles and strange phenomena, to contemplate strange creatures whether new creatures from our imaginations or old creatures of myth recreated or reawakened.  Dragons, gargoyles and sinking continents.  Light and dark, good and evil.  These are ancient concepts and most modern as well.

Explore, research, and see where it takes you.  The imagination is a wonderful thing and the resurgence of popularity of these types of stories is fascinating in itself.

Cover Artwork by
Linda Hunsaker

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