Archives for October 2016

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Do You Ever Hate Writing?

Having written is pretty awesome. Unless you hate what you wrote.

Do you ever hate writing?

Sometimes, when we get to a writing exercise, a student will groan, “Ugh, I hate writing!” And while Dorothy Parker was being witty when she said it (when wasn’t she being witty?), the students who say this are deadly serious. They’re teenagers (so I’ll admit there’s probably some hyperbole involved), but at least some of them honestly and vehemently dislike writing.

As a professional writer, that’s a hard point of view for me to get my head around. Even when I’m having a bad writing day – when I have to struggle over an hour to get 100 words on the page or days when I use writer’s block as an excuse not to write – I don’t dislike writing that much. I definitely don’t hate it.

Thinking back, I’m not sure that I ever disliked any of my schoolwork as much as they seem to dislike writing. The closest I can think of are things that I was really bad at (or at least much worse at than my classmates). On the other hand, sometimes, I was perfectly ok with being really bad at them and thought it was funny (like home ec…).

Hmmm…

I can see that some of the students might be uncomfortable with writing, and that’s why they dislike it. Especially if they have a disorder that makes spelling things or reading difficult. But what about the students who are good at writing who claim they hate it? I’ve had at least 2 of those (that I know of), and they groaned and grumbled every time they had to write something. Then, they’d write something that was exceptional for their age. So what’s the deal?

  • Is it boring? (But what homework isn’t?)
  • Do they think they’re bad at it?
  • Is it simply “uncool” to like writing?

Come to think of it, “It’s boring” is usually the answer I get when a kid tries to explain why he or she hates reading (a tragedy!). But when I think something is boring, I shrug and say it doesn’t interest me. I wouldn’t say that I hate it. Also, when I suggest books with story lines that the kids are honestly interested in, they still don’t try to read any of them, which implies that there’s more to it, right?

So even if they are simply expressing themselves poorly and saying they dislike writing when they really mean that it’s boring (which is very possible), there might be more to the problem. I mean, they’d have to absolutely loathe being bored to hate something just because it’s boring – which is possible but sounds like more effort than most of these kids like to go to.

If I were being cynical, I’d say that’s the key: they don’t like to exert themselves for anything that doesn’t interest them. Which I get but doesn’t really help.

*sigh*

I wish I knew for sure how much they actually dislike writing, how much is wanting to be cool, how much they’re bored, or how much is honestly hatred. I don’t like to think it’s the last one (that’s pretty discouraging when you’re trying to teach them writing). I know I won’t get a straight answer out of the kids (good luck with that), so I guess I’m stuck wondering.

Unless you can explain it – got any insights you want to share with a poor, bewildered writer? Why would someone hate writing?

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The Line Between Prose and Poetry

line between prose and poetryI got on facebook to reply to one invite and, predictably, spent the next hour distracted by various people’s posts. The one that finally inspired me enough to break the fb tunnel vision was a shared article about anxiety called “Anxiety Is an Invalid Excuse” from Just Cut the Bullshit. Besides the gripping illustration of a hard situation, the post caught my interest because it almost inexplicably blurs the line between prose and poetry.

Here’s the start:

   Anxiety is an invalid excuse. I just got back to my room after a failed attempt to go to class. I’m sitting here, writing this, trying to think of something to email my professor to sugarcoat what I’m feeling, to really drive home the point that class today was unbearable for me…

The first line (bolded here as it is in the original) repeats at the start of each new paragraph. Or perhaps each new stanza – it’s hard to tell. It acts as a refrain, driving home the author’s point, the message that is communicated over and over again to people with anxiety (explicitly or implicitly, verbally or nonverbally): “Anxiety is an invalid excuse.”

The lines following the refrain are written in a paragraph of sentences (with line breaks dictated by the browser rather than the artist’s will). At the same time, they have a rhythm, an emphasis on imagery, and an emotional appeal that lends a feel to the piece that is more like poetry than prose. It’s not hard to picture the piece being recited at a poetry slam, and yet, looking at the formatting and structure, my knee-jerk is to say that it’s prose.

Suddenly, the line between poetry and prose seems less easily defined (a pretty high compliment to the writer IMHO). From a writing standpoint, it’s also an intriguing puzzle for technique: how was it done and how can the effect be duplicated?

Is it the formatting? The lack of continuous line of thought between paragraphs? The intimate nature of the topic? Are those aspects combined with the imagery, rhythm, and use of refrain enough to sort of merge the genres of poetry and prose?

Or is there some detail, some technique that I’ve overlooked?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not up-to-date on more recent poets and poetry techniques. It wouldn’t shock me at all if this has already been discussed, and I am simply late to the table; however, all I’ve been able to find when searching the topic is a discussion of how to define and categorize the two – nothing about how to create a piece that deliberately blurs those lines.

I can definitely see how the details and techniques that I’ve listed would help create the effect. What I’m most uncertain of is whether all those facets are needed, or would a combination of a few work? If it were a less emotional topic, but the other techniques remained, would it still feel like poetry? Or if the paragraphs were less separate or had a line of continuity, would that mar the effect?

I’m honestly not sure. I’m going to have to think about it some more. And probably experiment a bit.

What do you think? Am I simply off my rocker, or is the article poetic prose? (Prosaic poetry? [No]). If you agree with the effect, I’d be very curious to hear what you think the cause might be. Comment away.

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A Little Phobia Goes a Long Way

comic guy panicking phobia

“Eek! A mouse!”

People are emotional creatures – they get caught up in things and act irrationally (and don’t realize it until later). If you’re having trouble working that into your writing, adding a phobia can help because even though phobias are irrational, they follow certain rules.

A Little Background on Phobias

A phobia is an irrational reaction of fear to something that is not dangerous (generally speaking). “Irrational” being the key word and the reason why they’re useful for having characters behave irrationally in believable ways.

Most people think that phobias start because of a traumatic experience – someone who has a near-death experience because of a fall becomes terrified of heights from that point on. And, yes, that can happen, but it’s actually less common. Many people are afraid of heights, spiders, or even the sight of blood with no real cause. It simply is, often for as long as a person can remember.

Interestingly enough, people who experience trauma may develop phobias that are completely unrelated to the trauma (true story). Which just underlines how completely illogical and irrational phobias really are.

Varying Degrees of Phobias

Any condition can have varying degrees – from mild to extreme, and the intensity of the person’s reaction is going to depend on how strong the phobia is. For a more mild phobia, a person might experience some discomfort dealing with it or become a little nervous. For an extreme phobia, the person could have a full breakdown and physically be unable to approach the object of the fear.

Both options and anything in between are completely plausible, but even though it is an irrational fear, it should follow rules. If someone has a complete meltdown from a little spider one day, he or she is not liable to get only slightly nervous because of a smaller one the next day. Unless given a reason to change, phobias are fairly consistent (or more likely to get worse than better).

Using Phobias in Your Writing

There are three basic steps to using phobias in your writing:

  1. Pick a phobia for a character.
  2. Set the rules
    • for what is included in the phobia
    • for how the character reacts to whatever he/she is afraid of
  3. Establish and follow the rules as you write.

Pick a Character & a Phobia

A phobia or discomfort with a topic/thing adds characterization and can make for interesting/different plot twists. If it’s a common phobia (public speaking, spiders, snakes, heights, etc.), then it can create empathy with the readers who have similar feelings.

Ron Weasley from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is established early on as being afraid of spiders (which many of us can empathize with). This lends comic relief and motivates his actions off and on throughout the series. If you think about it, it also makes his actions even more brave (facing Aragog would be scary enough without the phobia).

If it’s a less common phobia (cats, kids, slobber, etc.), then it counts as a character quirk that makes the character stick out and seem less stereotypical. It’s also a useful way to humanize an overly tough character.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas from the J.D. Robb In Death series is a tough, no-nonsense cop who will bravely dive into just about any kind of fight you can imagine without a second thought. She’s also a bit phobic of socializing, children, heights/space travel, and a hairdresser named Trina. It makes for an interesting mix.

A person can be phobic about pretty much anything, so the field is wide open for what the characters can be afraid of. But if you need inspiration, here’s a vast list of phobias.

Set the Rules of the Phobia

Making a phobia believable is all about consistency about stimuli and reactions. That’s why it’s important to define what exactly makes the character feel the unreasonable fear, anxiety, or fight-or-flight response. And defining the stimuli means more than saying, “spiders.” There are a lot of different ways to interact with spiders (or not. Preferably not).

Here are some examples of what I mean by interaction.

  • Seeing one far away (Is seeing it enough to cause a panic?)
  • Seeing one within arm’s reach
  • Seeing a fake one
  • Seeing a picture / video
  • Thinking about it / Remembering it
  • Talking about it
  • Hearing someone talk about it
  • Touching one (if it’s a physical thing)
  • Performing the activity (if it’s an action)

As a rule, the more intimate or prolonged the contact with the object of fear, the stronger the reaction. So you’ll want to decide what level of interaction a character can deal with, what level makes him/her uncomfortable, and what level makes him/her freak out (that’s totally a scientific term).

For example, let’s say that Joe is afraid of going to the movies.

  • The thought of going makes him instantly tense although it fades quickly once he stops thinking about it.
  • Drawings of it don’t bother him (they don’t look real), but photos do because they make him picture himself there. He’ll get tense quickly and look away.
  • People trying to convince him to go with them makes his heart pound too fast and his mouth get dry. His muscles knot, and he’ll finally yell to change the subject or leave rudely because he doesn’t want to think about it. It takes a while to come down from that.
  • Passing one in a mall makes him shake in addition to those symptoms, and he picks which mall he goes to by the layout and whether he can avoid the movie theater.

See how that could affect the plot?

That’s why setting rules is really useful. They let you allow for a range of responses, and by setting them up in advance, you make the character more consistent, which in turn, makes the phobia more believable.

The responses you choose should also be fairly consistent – variations on a theme, as it were. If the character is prone to freeze and be unable to move, he/she is unlikely to suddenly get up and run away. On the other hand, if something only makes the character a bit edgy, it would be out of character to scream and run away.

If you research common symptoms for phobias, you’ll find that specific phobias have more typical symptoms. Some of the more universal ones are…

  • Hyperventilating
  • Shakes
  • Cold
  • High heart rate (or the feel of one – AKA an adrenaline spike)
  • Throat closing up
  • Screaming
  • Crying

The symptoms are generally uncomfortable, embarrassing, or both, so it’s no wonder most people try to avoid whatever their phobic of.

Establish & Follow the Rules

Like any other characterization, the phobia should be established early on – or at least the 1st time the stimulus is introduced. You don’t have to have a character confess to a strange phobia early on when nothing has brought up that topic (please, don’t). But a reader shouldn’t be able to look back and say, “Rita wasn’t afraid of dogs in Chapter Two…” or “But Rita was terrified of dogs two paragraphs ago!” unless there’s a reason for that.

I’ve blabbered on too long already to go into detail, but suffice to say that phobias don’t disappear quickly. They can weaken slowly over time (usually because of repeated exposure to the stimulus), they can stay the same, or they can suddenly get worse due to stress or other pressures (like slight nerves becoming a full-blown phobia).

Phobias are like fat: infuriatingly quick to put on and agonizingly slow to take off.

Fortunately for our characters, they’re made up. That means that we can subject them to these uncomfortable things for our convenience and amusement. If a character is being too logical or tough, we can throw in a little irrational behavior by giving them a phobia. Then, instead of having to try to get caught up enough to figure out what an overwrought person would do, we can simply follow the rules of the phobia – a little phobia goes a long way.

Convenient, yeah?

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A City’s Character: More Writing Inspiration from Travel

urban city aerialA while back, I talked about how to make the most of travel delays with the people-watching writing prompt, but even if there are no (or few) people around, you can still find plenty of useful inspiration in your travels by considering a city’s character.

Places are like people. They have a certain look, a certain feel. They have their quirks, their strengths, and their flaws. They can be welcoming, or they can be hostile. Whatever size or density, places have plenty to draw from as a writer.

Here are some aspects you might want to consider when using a place for inspiration:

  • Worldbuilding: style, layout, laws, business, crime, attractions, sounds, weather, wildlife, landscape, etc. Anything that exists in a real place can be used to make your imagined place feel real, to add interest, or even for humor.
  • Mood: Atmosphere is a powerful tool, and one of the best ways to learn to build atmosphere is to experience and observe a specific atmosphere and analyze how it is created. Or simply use imagery as inspiration.
  • Pacing: Different places go at different speeds. This is especially noticeable if you go somewhere that moves at the opposite tempo you’re used to. If you have the time to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with a nice cup of tea), you can see how those speeds ebb and flow throughout the day and even how different people have different speeds within that pacing. You could even pattern your story arc after the ebbs and flows of a town (wouldn’t that be an interesting project?).
  • Food: Cultural differences bring food differences – not only through what people eat but also through how people treat their food. Is it something grabbed on the run? Is it something eaten at the table in a leisurely manner? Is it scarce or plentiful? Even if you already use food for worldbuilding or writing inspiration, seeing new foods or new customs can give you fresh perspectives and ideas.
  • Personification: Or should I say, “reverse personification”? (No, I shouldn’t.) Writers often describe places as people (arrogant old women, young charmers, etc.), but you could just as easily reverse that to build a character inspired by a place. Like the dryad that takes on characteristics of her tree, you could build a character who embodies the spirit of a place.
  • Structural Opportunities: Ok, this might seem a little weird at first glance (there’s probably a better word for it), but bear with me. What I’m talking about is the layout of traffic flow and living spaces, both on a large and small scale. How the city is laid out in relation to the landscape, how streets meet each other, how green space or exterior space is tied in, and even where windows are (or aren’t).
    1. These are all things you might think of with worldbuilding, but they can also be very useful for plotting. Like looking at a building and realizing how easy it would be to walk from one to the other. Or like the fact that only locals know that you have to take the highway exit that says “west” to go east… (true story).

There are more options (always). And if you’ve thought about it at all, you’ve already realized that 1. these “aspects” are all things you can apply to where you live (no travel required) and 2. a lot of them are applying other writing prompts to a different location…

You caught me.

Seriously, though, this prompt isn’t about an idea you can only use when you travel. There’s no such thing! It’s more about remembering to be observant and think about this stuff when you have the opportunity to see things you don’t get to see every day. That’s the point of travel, right? You get to experience a strange mix of familiar and different.

That’s a great mix for writing inspiration – but only if you look.