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Archive for December, 2009

StrengthsFinder

When I worked as a corporate employee, we took Gallup’s StrengthsFinder to determine our, well, strengths. I expected a bunch of fortune cookie nonsense, but as soon as I saw the results, I was a believer. I include them here because I feel they give another insight into my writing style. Here are my top 6.

Ideation: I love ideas and creating new ones. I’m always looking for another way to do things. I’ll never run out of story ideas. Promise.

Strategic: I like to take the info I have at my disposal and form a plan, though it’s probably different than the way others do it. Great for writing, nonetheless.

Input: I like to gather data and info. I loved maps and encyclopedias as a child. You should see me research something that interests me, especially when writing.

Intellection: I like to think about things. A lot. Yeah, that blank stare is me writing or rewriting a story in my head.

Context: I like to know the “why”. Used to drive my dad nuts when it came to his rules. Explains my love of history and backstory.

Learner: I have an endless thirst for knowledge and a desire to constantly improve myself.

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The Edges of Fantasy

I was shoveling my driveway for the third time in twenty-four hours on Wednesday. A blizzard was sweeping across the upper Midwest, making up for the lack of snow we’d had so far this season. I was happy for its arrival.

I have a routine when clearing the driveway, first defining the edges, then pushing the snow outwards from the middle. It reminded me of the way I approached writing fantasy fiction, which is different than the way I write everything else. Sure, I do some brainstorming and furious writing, fleshing out characters, locations, and plot points. But for fantasy, I don’t really get writing the real story until I’ve defined every aspect of my new world. Until I’ve found the edges.

This can be a monumental task.

It also reminds me of how I used to color with crayons as a child (if I put some more thought into my daily routine, I would probably find other similar examples). I was a sloppy colorer. To help stay within the lines, I’d draw parallel to the border of the image I was filling in. My coloring area defined, I would then scribble up to the edges, hopefully not crossing over. My finished work was generally neat, if somewhat rigid. It also took me much longer than the other kids.

That’s how I work in fantasy. I need to rigidly define the aspects of my world before I can start filling in the story. Most of my other tales take place in the real world, requiring far less definition. In fantasy, I need to know the limitations of my realm, which really seems counter-intuitive for a story that is designed to exist completely outside our own.

This is why I feel it takes me too long to get anywhere with my writing in this particular genre. There is too much to define and the story never gets a real chance to be written. Here’s a quick list of the things I like to create first:

Races, political history, creation myths, alphabet and language, folklore, weapons, armor, architecture, landscapes and geography, clothing and fashion, fighting styles, music and poetry, racism, and heroic legends

That’s a lot of detail to develop before the main character puts on his gauntlets to begin the hero’s journey. Even though some story ideas will blossom from this world-creation, honestly, I’m never going to get anywhere. But I really, really enjoy doing all of this, which is part of the trap. It’s exhilarating to play God in your own little world, even if the Devil is in the details.

One would correctly guess that I’ve never completed writing a full fantasy novel. It’s just been too big for me—too time-consuming. Starting maybe twelve years ago, I started working on one, an epic one, creating several maps, dozens of characters, and components of everything else on my aforementioned list. That’s about when Tolkien derailed me. I had heard of him, but never read Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (I know! Fifteen points were deducted from my geek card and I lost my +5 armor.). I read both books and discovered that not only had he created a world and mythology like I wanted, he had done it very, very well.

I knew it would be a disservice to fans of the genre to write a novel that wouldn’t be able to sit on the same shelf as Tolkien’s work. I imagined my book sitting outside the fantasy section at the bookstore saying, “Please let me in. I’ve got Elves!” while a large troll barred the way with crossed arms and a paper shredder. I also realized I just wasn’t going to have the time to devote to my writing, especially while working a full-time job. Current Me does consider this a cop-out. So, eight or nine years ago, I put it aside, knowing that one day I would return to it.

Suddenly, I realized I’d stopped shoveling. I had clarity in the middle of a whirling blizzard.

To complete this novel, I must learn to work up to the edges of my written reality and cross over them, defining new margins as I go to give myself some flexibility. I will need to return to the imprecise style of my crayon-using years and get a little sloppy. I must persevere when I suddenly don’t know the history of the Dorin clan or the etymology of the Dwarvish language.

And then, riding the winds that howled along the streets and whistled through doors, came a familiar sound. Over the rising mounds of snow in the distance, strange figures began to appear. The giants were returning from their northern refuges. Dragons had returned to the world. My hero was tightening his gauntlets.

The creative gears in my head were turning again.

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Write that down now!

Writers: A quick plea to remember to capture those amazing ideas immediately as they come to you lest they disappear with nary a trace. Often this has happened to me and I have worn my boot soles thin from kicking myself.

I often like to let an idea run around in my head for a bit as I try to form it into something more tangible. If I can keep thinking about it as the day goes on, it starts to develop and grow. Suddenly, a day or a week later, I find myself typing away, turning thought into word and idea into story.

But that idea is very much like a cloud riding the wind at the head of a storm, and if I turn my focus away, sometimes for even a moment, those skyborne wisps will be something else by the time I look back, leaving nothing but gray thunderheads in their wake. The storm arrives days later when my mind gives me a little poke and says, “Hey, you had a great idea last Wednesday, but it’s soooo gone now. Just thought you’d like to know.”

So, stop whatever you are doing because the brilliance* that is

“The creature kept coming, inexorably, despite its ruined leg. It dragged the damaged limb along, giving no heed to the pain inflicted by my axe. Vengeance burned from its eyes, striking me like a physical blow and holding me fast. The look I read on its face told me the creature meant to take more than my leg as recompense. And it needed no axe to collect.”

will be reduced to “The angry creature stomped toward me” when you try to write it down later.

And this is why, having just written another article, I am now, at four in the morning, starting a second one.

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 *Brilliance in this example means that after rewriting my example a dozen times at 4am, I gave up, knowing that it didn’t necessarily need to be truly brilliant for the purpose of this writing.

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Holy lexicon, do I hate misspellings. And I’m harder on myself than anyone else, though I can be critical of those who should know better (biz professionals) and of those I see in printed books.

I type pretty quickly, though I haven’t been timed for years. If I’m particularly inspired, it’s probably around 100 wpm. But I’m hardly error-free. I can go faster than many since I’m not that particularly concerned about typos. Why? Because I’m a ruthless spellchecker. No, that doesn’t mean I frequently click the button in Word with the ABC and check mark (though I do that, too). I mean that every few paragraphs, I reread what I’ve typed and check for spelling and grammar (and flow, pace, content, etc). Then I type a few more paragraphs and reread the whole thing again. Even for WordPress items, I’m writing them in Word, rereading, proofing, and editing constantly as I go. I do this even after I’ve pasted (what looks like) the final copy into WP: I preview my text and give it another run through or two. Using this method, I catch 99% of the potential typos I make (that sounds like a totally unverifiable statistic and possibly hubris, for which I will likely be punished in the form of a typo in this missive). It works very well, nonetheless.

Until a recent query email I sent.

I researched and researched, using info from agents on their websites and Twitter. I found examples of what others had done. I wrote my query. Then proofed and rewrote and edited and rewrote. Finally somewhat satisfied, I pasted it from Word into an email, rechecked and edited again, typed the subject line, and sent it. I liked it well enough that I copied the text into another email for my next query, ensuring that I changed any info specific to the agent. I copied the subject line, too.

And that’s when the spell checker caught the typo. In. The. Subject. Line.

Dammit.

I had typed “An Illustratrated Children’s book”. Look at it. Look at it! How in the blue blazes did I miss that? Did I also forget to hit the spellcheck button one last time? But even now, knowing full well it’s spelled wrong, weirdly, deceptively, it still doesn’t look that wrong. I have seen far more egregious errors. Perhaps that’s what bothers me the most.

Fortunately, mercifully, in her rejection response, the agent did not mention that the SECOND word she had seen from me had been misspelled nor did she gently remind me of the importance of proofing your submission before sending it. It was the first time I’d hoped for a form letter response!

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PS: How many total typos did I find here before sending? Three, despite having typed this at 3:30am on my BlackBerry in the baby’s rocking chair.

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Exposing your writing self

Sharing your writing is a little bit like letting someone see you naked for the first time, except you feel more exposed. And more vulnerable. And more self-conscious. And so on.

We all have a general idea of what society deems a physically attractive person. It’s been hammered into us from an early age. If a person is so inclined, he or she can work towards that ideal with exercise and diet (and possibly surgery).

I think we have less of an understanding of what other attributes make people attractive, namely, thoughts, emotions, and personality. As a result, we keep these aspects of ourselves hidden, rarely revealing everything, even to loved ones. 

And these are the things that come out in our writing, consciously or otherwise. Writing should be made up of the parts of yourself you let few people see, parts of your mind, your heart, and your soul (note: I usually despise mentions of the soul because it’s often referenced in an agonizingly melodramatic way: e.g. “she felt the pain down to her breaking soul” or “the sight of the dying woman tore at his very soul”. Here I’m just using it to cover the aspects of a person that aren’t part of the heart or mind. So I’m OK with myself on this one.). These are things we generally keep tightly locked up inside us because they are too personal, because we really are uncertain how others will react. I find this telling about us as a society.

Perhaps it’s also nice to have certain things that only we ourselves know about ourselves. This has to go away when it comes to writing. One of the reasons people read is to get a personal connection with others, whether fictional characters or not.

On the other hand, one of the reasons people write is to be read, journaling aside (though I believe many diary keepers secretly wish someone would read these innermost confessions). So, a story is nearly worthless if no one ever reads it. Despite this, I think many people find that writing a story is difficult, but getting the nerve to ask someone to read it is harder.

Back to my nudity analogy, the first time is toughest. You’re really unsure of yourself and the other person wants to be kind and generally won’t voice what they really think. There’s a lot of stumbling and fumbling, and finally, having taken longer than you expected, they tell you what they think. And it’s more likely they will tell you what they think you want to hear, which they shouldn’t do, unless they really want to see you naked again. I mean, read more of your writing. If you’re lucky, they sincerely do and you’ve found a willing participant in your writing process.

For better or worse, though, the first time is over. You’ve exposed your writing self to another person. And the next time will be slightly easier.

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I’m rereading some of my query letters, and I swear my mind is exaggerating them into weirdly desperate cries for help. Something like this:

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To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for taking the time to read this query letter. I found your listing while searching for an agent to represent my children’s books.

This is going to be painful. My apologies in advance. This submission represents my first attempt to gain agent representation, as well as my first attempt to become a published author. I have no idea how to write a query letter. I’ve written thousands of business letters and scores of job cover letters, so you can expect this letter to be well-written and typo-free. But with a query letter, I’m lost.

I know how to write stories, but this part of the submission process is just awful. Why? Because the thrill that comes with creating a story and characters just isn’t there when writing a letter. Also, I’m not sure if I’m good enough to be published, much less represented by an agent hoping to make a living. Coming from a small Midwestern town where humility was second nature and bragging just wasn’t done, I never developed a sense of how to sell my abilities. I think my stories are decent, as do my mom and Facebook friends. They all tell me they love my writing. So that’s something.

I spend a lot of my free time writing, and I’ve written a lot of reports at work. And I do have an English degree—in writing even! What I lack in experience, I make up in passion for my craft. Additionally, I have kids and I’ve read them lots of children’s books, so I know what they like.

I’m willing to change any aspect of my manuscript, including characters’ names, gender, or species. I’m even willing to change the location and plotline. I’ve included an excerpt of my manuscript per the instructions on your website. I hope you find it formatted to your liking.

I’m thinking I may just have to blunder along with painfully-written query letters until some poor agent takes pity on me. Well, thank you again for your time and consideration. I promise to try really hard and never complain.

Yours, most sincerely,

Michael Wallevand

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I’ve spent enough time staring at blank computer screens and empty notebook pages to know that sometimes Inspiration is nowhere to be found. It also means that I’ve taken the time to develop some tools that help me coax her out of hiding. Today I’m writing about banking some of that Inspiration you have on Writing Day 1 to ensure you have some left when you return to the story on Writing Day 2, 3, and beyond.

I’d like to think that anyone who has done a little writing has felt the electric spark when the Idea comes (the optimist in me hopes everyone has because it’s an amazing feeling). For me, time slows and fire nearly erupts from my fingers as they blaze across the keyboard, seemingly impervious to incorrect keystrokes. And still, there is the fear that amidst the stream of thoughts flowing onto the page, I will miss something because my fingers cannot keep up with my speeding brain.

Sometimes this fear is great enough that I stumble into a writing pitfall of mine: I start shorthand outlining. Suddenly, my complex sentences don’t form completely and they trail off before I get to the thought-ending period. Full paragraphs come out as bullet points. On the page, I suddenly have something that looks like a badly-structured poem.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand the benefits of a good outline, as well as brainstorming. Love ‘em both. But this, this is different. It’s an inspiration killer whose sole purpose is to heave (please see your thesaurus for the gastronomic verb I really wanted to use) as many thoughts onto the page for the simple purpose of scouring them from my brain. Every single developing thought is torn out and splattered onto the page. When I’m done, there’s nothing of the Idea left in my head, which is dangerous if what I’ve captured doesn’t inspire me later.

After years of falling into this trap, I’ve developed another way to deal with this situation. I slow down. I take more time with description. Like a pot of boiling water, I try to keep the flame hot enough to keep it from going out, but not so hot as to boil over.

There’s an almost desperation that builds as I write the introduction or transition into that scene I can’t wait to see on paper. Sometimes, I’ve spent so much time on the stuff before my scene, I haven’t even written down the part that got me typing in the first place! And that’s my point. I’ve fleshed out enough that I won’t forget the Idea. But I’ve left that glowing ember in my head and it sits there, smoldering, forcing me to keep thinking about it until I return to the keyboard to fan it back to life.

I believe it was Walt Disney who said, “Always leave them wanting more.” That’s essentially what I’m doing here. I’m leaving myself wanting more.

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