Breaking through Blocks

Alcott-sailDuring a recent creativity for writers workshop I presented, it occurred to me that the publishing industry is riddled with negative phrasing and insinuations. Editors send rejections in response to submissions, people talk about “failure,” and both pre-published and published works get critiqued. During writing workshops I often address the anxiety and fear newbie writers experience and discuss the “inner critic” (or “gremlins” as my graduate professors labeled the negative self-talk). Both these gremlins and publishing terms can cause blocks (for writers at all levels) and delays in getting started. Many writers fear what others will think of the finished piece though there is not yet anything to shape into a polished product).

In fact, for this creativity workshop, one of the first activities (which I have adapted successfully with writers from grade 4 through college freshman) was to create a visual representation of that inner critic. (I wrote previously about this activity in “Gag the Inner Critic.”) Later we were to write a letter to that critic, and after more activities and info (at the end of the workshop) I planned to have them write a response to that letter in the voice of the critic. The idea was to work through the blocks to creativity and put a positive spin on the “negative” views we often place on the creative process. We never got there–because one participant didn’t want to do half the activities and another took issue with the “negativity” behind the label critic/gremlin. The idea behind all the activities was to allow inhibitions to drop away and OPEN ourselves up to the ideas and creativity we each possess.

“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart & to turn on your creativity.
There’s a light inside you.”
~Judith Jamison

In order to tap into our creativity, most of us need to learn to silence the inner critic (or whatever label you want to place on the editor in your head). During the initial creative stages, we need to be free to play with ideas (without yet deciding whether they are worth pursuing or not). We need to knock down the obstacles in our path, whether they are believing in our own creativity or wrestling with finding time to write (or draw, or paint, or sculpt, or find new solutions to old dilemmas). In the midst of the workshop, I didn’t realize that despite getting stuck on the label I used for one of the biggest obstacles writers face (the inner editor or critic), one participant was mired in “self-limitations” (essentially a block to creativity, perhaps even a gremlin scampering beneath the surface and inhibiting creativity).

“Any little bit of experimenting in self-nurturance
is very frightening for most of us.”
~Julia Cameron

Using a long list of activities, from looking at the world around us with fresh eyes to playing with nouns and verbs and words, the participants worked with tools designed to spark creativity. There are two types of thinking important to creativity and which easily deepen our writing : divergent thinking (in which we see new uses for common objects) and associative thinking (in which we link two thoughts, experiences, items, words, etc to create new ways of seeing something). Associative thinking, especially, is important for writers because this is the type of thinking we use to create analogies and paint vivid pictures using few words (think metaphor, simile, and comparisons for description).

 ducklingsIt’s easier to let go of fears we have about our writing or being “good enough” to get published if we focus on  the joy behind creating and do what’s needed to stifle the gremlins, inner critic, or joy snatchers. (I previously covered this topic in Find Your Writing Joy.) Having writing and creativity exercises on hand to get the juices flowing doesn’t hurt either. Some of my favorite activities come from the following books (dog-eared and within easy reach on my bookshelf):  Writing Done the Bones by Natalie Goldberg;  Pencil Dancing by Mari Messer; and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron.

May you break through your blocks for happy writing (or creating)!

The Name Game

What names have you given your characters? Do they fit the growth the characters undergo during the course of the story? What emotional reaction do you hope for from your readers? A character’s name, especially for the hero and villain, is a way to offer a hint at characterization with a single word. The name needs to fit the character’s personality. What character traits does the name “Wiloughby” conjure? What about Augustus or Samson? We can paint a strong or wimpy character with his or her name. This name can make the reader like (or dislike in the case of antagonists) that character. We want the reader to root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist.

More than simply a name that fits, it needs to be a name the character can grow into (remember that characters need to undergo growth during the course of a story). Do you have a hero with a weak name? How will the reader believe that the main character is capable of great things (especially if he acts wishy-washy and his name reflects those traits)?

I have a character in a dark paranormal/fantasy story named Constance. I wanted an old fashioned, family name, one that she felt weighed her down, made her stand out. I wanted her to possibly be teased because of it. Her father calls her “Stancy” a nickname that is also as old as that family name. Her roommate calls her “Con” for short—and these nicknames are as important as the principle name. As the story unfolds, it’s clear she is not all that stable (look at the “old” family history she’s been straddled with) and “Con” fits her perfectly. In this story, the main character (protagonist) is not endearing or likable, but she has redeeming qualities. I want the reader to see and hope that she can change—both her actions and her attitude.

After explaining this to a writing client I’m coaching, he says, “This is ridiculous. It’s just a name. You really expect me to believe you put that much thought into all these little details, especially just a name?”

“Yes!” I say. Especially names. Names are as important for characters as they are for real people. Why else do people repeat the name of a person she’s just met (to ensure she’s heard correctly)? Why do we  correct a misstep? “It’s Lisa, not Linda.” Because names matter!

Names have meanings. You can use baby naming dictionaries or lists to help in selecting a name that fits a character’s personality. Keep in mind that when writing historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction, the name of characters can offer a sense that this is not the reader’s current time and place. Again, looking at baby naming lists or The Character-Naming Sourcebook by  Sherrilyn Kenyon (Writer’s Digest Books) to find origins of names and nicknames is very helpful. Sometimes spelling the name “phonetically” can aid the reader and establish a “genre.” In a writing workshop I led, I asked participants to pass their story excerpt to the person next to them. This person read the story aloud during the critique half. (It’s a great way to hear excessively long or awkwardly phrased sentences in your own work.) One woman became agitated when her work was read. “It’s not Steven!” she said. “The character’s name if Stef-AHN.”

“But it’s spelled S-t-e-v-e-n,” I said. “Reader’s will pronounce it like the name they are familiar with.”

“But that’s not his name! How do I make the reader pronounce it the way I want?”

We discussed options, and since this was a fantasy, I convinced her it would be okay to spell it S-t-e-f-a-h-n so the reader would likely pronounce it as she intended. In the case of fantasy, an alternate spelling like this also helps the reader paint a “different world” setting.

While we are not sitting on the shoulders of our readers to “guide” them through interpreting our stories as we intended them, we can help the reader along, providing clues to characters’ personalities with a single word—their names.

Should you “brand” your prose?

The topic of trademarks and using specific brands in stories came up in several different classes this week. Being specific when we describe what a character does, wears, drives, or eats is important, but does your character really need to use Puffs tissues or eat M&Ms candies or chew Orbit gum? If you’ve succumbed to the notion that you need a “big name brand” so Hollywood will option movie rights to your Great American Novel, think again.

If you must use specific brands in your writing, properly use the trademark and respect companies’ brand names as you write. Coke is a trademark of the Coca-Cola Company and Kleenex is a registered trademark of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Trademarks should be capitalized and followed by the generic equivalent. If possible (which doesn’t work well in fiction) use the TM or RM superscript after the word). Better yet, replace it with the generic term: cola, soda pop, soft drink, facial tissue.

The exception to the initial cap rule is iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTunes and any future projects from Apple, Inc. following the “i-product” branding. Note that the “I” is lowercase and the “P” is uppercase. This models the trademark and should be copied in print.

Trademarks are legal property (just as your writing is copyrighted the moment you put words to paper). Trademark owners work hard to keep their brand names from falling into “common use.” This is what happened to “escalator”—originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company for the moving stairs they produced. Misuse of the trademark led to the term escalator falling into common use and it now means any brand of moving stairs. In Canada, Aspirin is still a brand name for acetylsalicylic acid while in America, the word is part of our common language referring to a type of pain reliever.

Companies can take legal action against publications for misuse of trademarks, so editors appreciate writers who carefully use trademarks properly—or avoid “branding” their prose altogether.

Survival of the Technologically Savvy

Finally! Success. I’ve been playing with the gadgets and accessories I received for Christmas. Someday soon I’ll “get” how to sync my PC docs with iCloud. (At the moment, it’s just easier to e-mail them to myself because I love iAWriter and don’t use DropBox.)

And, who imagined using Bluetooth could be so easy–and so much fun? The one problem I’m encountering with this new technology (well, other than figuring out how to get my devices to recognize it–don’t bother reading the instructions because they are for an older model or something) is that it’s supposed to make my life more productive, yet I find my self having to “adapt.” Each device and app (that allows typing) has a slightly different keyboard layout. Couple that with different tools and accessories I use and I always need a minute or two to “adjust” to the “tool” I’m using at the moment. Even simply typing a search string into Google can be a challenge depending on whether I’m using the online (touch screen) keyboard, my home desktop computer, my laptop, or one of several “keyboard” devices I use during travel.

But, in the end, I figure I’m simply keeping my mind sharp. Forcing myself to “adapt” to the device of the moment reinforces how we all should strive to focus on the here-and-now, the present, or life in this moment. That in itself is a huge benefit for me. (Imagine, please, an exclamation point there – I can’t find it on my keyboard-of-the-moment.)

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a peaceful and productive New Year!

The “Read” Not Taken

Who got Kindles, Nooks, or iPads for the holidays? It’s time to load them with e-books and apps (and I’ll be offering my latest Kindle book free in the next few days). I never thought I’d read e-books; now I’m seriously considering writing more of them. The possibilities (for my background) are numerous. One of the big features is the option to publish shorter pieces, advice, nonfiction, fiction, etc.

Several of my traditionally published books also have e-book versions; in fact, my Kids Throughout History series was among the first (of my titles) electronically published for schools and libraries in early 2000. Still, I always thought I’d prefer hard copy books, or as my sister-in-law calls them, “dead tree mode.”

I’m particular about my books. They have to be hardback or trade paperback. I’ve never been a fan of the “pocket” paperbacks. But, I did purchase several PDF style books when Amazon first started selling their “shorts.” During my graduate work, I tried a few e-books to save on textbook costs. A big mistake! I hated sitting at the computer in order to read my assignments and it was tough to use the highlight and note features; it simply wasn’t the same as curling up with a book.

Eventually I downloaded the book apps for PC and acquired several titles. It wasn’t until recently, when I explored plans for e-publishing, that I began reading more e-books.

It’s sort of like research. Are the free books worth it? How does the pricing work? I read the reviews and comments carefully to help me make decisions for pricing choices and such with my own e-published books. I even played around with my sister’s iPad and a friend’s Kindle. They’re neat! They’re heavier than I assumed but probably not much more than the books I read. And, you can “curl up” with them.

So, in all, I like e-books though I still purchase my share of “dead tree mode” books. Two things bug me though. One, strange formatting. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years as a typesetter for a weekly newspaper but I notice whether text moves back and forth between flush left and full justification, or the font changes, or for some reason a word (or letter, or page) is suddenly red or blue instead of black. It bugs me! I notice. And it interrupts the flow of the story for me. Because I was “doing research,” I read the stories despite the format “glitches.”

These could become the “reads” not taken. I don’t want people to delete my e-books or write nasty reviews that state “it wasn’t worth the price–and I got it free.” Ouch! I read many such reviews, so when I published, I worked hard to eliminate these issues and get the formatting consistent.

The second thing that bugs me is typos. I’m calling mistakes in grammar typos because I truly hope they are mere typos and not a book that should have been edited or proofread before being e-published. This thinking is easier for me than when the errors are misspellings or frequently confused words. Sometimes I’ve noticed a place where an error was caught but the correction and the error remained “you’re your car key’s are here.”

Sadly there have been a few books (thankfully they were free) that were so riddled with grammatical errors, especially misplaced modifiers, that I wonder about the credibility of the author. No wonder e-books had a bad rep at first. Some of the worst offenders have the imprint of big publishing houses, too. Absolutely unacceptable.

Yes, typos and errors slip in. We’re all human. Sometimes deadlines are simply too tight and careful proofreading is rushed. I know I have to try my hardest to make my product the best it can be. I don’t want my writing to become the “read not taken.”

Driving through the Deluge

People often talk about turning life’s lemons into lemonade. Sheesh! I’ll take lemons any day! Add a little water, some sugar, then drink down some lemonade. That sort of problem I can deal with–the “grin and get through it” type of problem.

When life throws problems my way, they come in torrents. It’s  much like the summer rains we get here in Florida. Those usually hit when I’m driving on I-75. The sky opens up like a faucet and even with the wipers on full speed I can barely see the road 10 feet in front of the car. During such downpours, you have 2 choices–pull over and wait it out, or (and this is what most people do) turn on the car’s flashers, slow down, and use the blinking red lights of the car in front of yours to help stay on the road.

Most people do this for 2 reasons. First, summer downpours last 20 minutes or so. Second, chances are you’re driving toward and then through the storm. Even crawling along with hazard lights flashing, the storm will pass by sooner than if you wait it out under an overpass. (And, personally, I feel safer crawling along than parked on the side of interstate.)

Lately, I feel as if I’m driving through a metaphorical deluge. Events just keep happening. I have no control except to try to remain positive. As soon as I think it can’t get worse, some new twist happens. (Maybe this is why I’m not getting lemons–I’d be dealing with bushels and bushels.) Normally such times in my life seem to focus on just my job or just  my personal life. Not this time. This time I’m getting hit from every part of my life and from every side and angle. I don’t know what bad karma I put out there, but it’s dumping on me now! Even with the wipers going at warp speed, I can still barely see where I’m headed.

Luckily, I’ve survived these deluges before so I’m confident I’ll get through this one. Eventually. I also know that during such times I learn who my true friends are and whom I can count on. Sort of like the spring cleaning my mother used to do when I was young, I know that this deluge is helping me wash away all the unimportant things I’ve expended energy on; once it ends I have a feeling my windshield will be squeaky clean and I will clearly know where I’m headed.

As I’m crawling through this torrential rain, I have remembered to thank my friends and express gratitude for all my wonderful students. They have been most compassionate and understanding. Thank you!

Transforming Memory

It’s a dull day in sunny Florida. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to do this, but I’m sitting on the lanai drinking coffee and eating breakfast. It’s an hour later than it feels due to the overcast sky and steady drizzle. I’ve been watching the pond collect the raindrops for about half an hour.

Yes, it’s “winter” here in Florida, but this is unusual. Even during rainy season, our rain usually comes in steady torrents. When I first moved here, it seemed as if a faucet was turned on and then off. I recall waiting 15 minutes after the rain ended for the water to drain off the flooded parking lot so I could get to my car.

This is different. The sound of it is gentle and steady. It is just so odd to have a dreary, overcast day all day. The smell of the rain is subtle with a hint of moss and fish. The feel of it is less ominous than our usual storms. And, it is damp. Damp that lingers and seeps into every crevice. Again, unusual. The promise is different, too. Torrential bursts of rain or thunderstorms are short and followed by sunshine to quickly dry and humidify. Then life gets back to normal. This rain has no promise of stopping. It reminds me of the jungle movies in which rainy season arrives with a steady drizzle that lasts for days and weeks until the characters (explorers, scientists, anthropologists, whoever) face rivulets of water growing into streams through their camps until they are nearly flooded away.

It also reminds me of camping in Michigan. I remember being huddled in a light jacket in early July as a storm blew through during which the temp dropped into the 70s and then subsided into a steady drizzle. We’d sit drinking coffee and watching it rain, forced to put activities on hold. I’d watch the rain drip from the trees and notice details.

I’m noticing details now and wondering how rain in the setting of my fantasy novel looks. I allow bits of my memories to shift and morph into details for the setting for the world in which my fantasy is set.

My main character has been slowed in reaching her destination when her transportation is injured. Now a steady rain is complicating the situation. What trees and plants does she see as she sits, damp and miserable? Is she unable to build a fire? Why? What does she hear?

As I notice air ferns peppering a tree trunk and moss hanging from other trees here, I wonder about her world. Are there plants or creatures hanging from the trees there? Are they poisonous or will they bring comfort? Is there a plant that thrives in the damp and wet that might save her steed? What must she do to find it?

How does she distinguish the natural sounds, such as a woodpecker tapping and poking for breakfast, over the sounds of danger?

As I linger on the lanai, allowing the drizzle to sift memories to the surface, I transform them into pieces and details to create the setting or twists in the plot.