Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?

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 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

What is staring you in the face?

Bright sunshine beckoned the other day and I tied on my runners and trotted outside. With my headset plugged into my iPhone, I hit the music button, ready for a brisk walk. Instead of Emeli Sandé, I got thundering silence. The bounce went out of my step and I stared at my phone dumfounded.

Word count: 334    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I punched buttons as if simple determination would make the songs magically reappear. When I pulled out the ear buds and stood there, I heard nothing more than the autumn leaves that rasped along the pavement. I resigned myself to a technology-free hour and moved on.

Without the cocoon of music to separate me from ambient buzz, I walked. Although it would be glorious to report that I heard something so significant that it inspired a brilliant short story or chapter, that didn’t happen. But I caught conversations from people’s yards. Jays scolded in a cedar tree. When a car drove past, the doughy sounds of its tires on the warm road reached me. A normal Sunday morning on the edge of Mt. Fromme.

My sharpened hearing changed to more focused looking and I saw, for the first time, the way the Steller jays’ wings appeared translucent against the sun. I breathed deep the rich humus smell rising from the earth. I touched the springy young needles on a hemlock tree.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” When I plug into my tunes, I deny myself a chance to do just that.

When the latest iPhone 4 upgrade deleted my entire iTunes library it may have given me an inadvertent gift: I discovered that music piped directly to my brain doesn’t turn off only my ability to hear, it also dulls my senses of sight, touch, and smell. Maybe it sweeps me into what Jason Perlow calls the Sea of Stupid.

Do you have a habit, particularly one that is technology-dependent, one that diminishes your powers of observation? How do you overcome it?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Leaves in autumn, Tapis de feuilles en automne by hamon jp

What does your reader's eye behold?

In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath lectures on gentility: “To do the gentil dedes that he kan; taak hym for the grettest gentil man.” (Gentility in Middle English meant  nobility of character, refinement.) Over the centuries this morphed into the homily handsome is as handsome does, which first appeared in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1776).

Word count: 386                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Stephen King says Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader's. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel the heat of attraction. Flat adjectives like handsome, beautiful, sexy, lovely mean the writer is making the reader do his job.

The day my husband and I met, I carried my own scuba gear – all eighty pounds of it – to and from the beach. It never occurred to me to ask for help because my usual dive buddies didn’t offer it. My husband had only dived with women who thought he was there to make their experiences easier. Then he met me: I drove myself to the dive site, unloaded my own gear, and dived in the frigid water of the Pacific Northwest in a forty-pound dry suit. Where other men might have seen someone unappealingly independent, my husband saw the most attractive woman he’d met in months. How lucky we found each other.

So if a character finds another sexy and attractive, I want to know why. The reasons say as much about the attractee as they do the attractor. Does the hair on his neck stand up when he hears her low throaty voice? Does she have a foot fetish and adores him in Blundstones?

Like so many rules of craft, it’s simple in principle and much, much harder in execution. Here are some points that I try to remember:

  • If food is delicious, will the reader’s mouth water?
  • If the character is crying, is the reader’s heart breaking?
  • If the character is beautiful, is the reader captivated?
  • If a fire is burning, can the reader smell the smoke?
  • If someone is singing, can the reader hear the tone of the voice?
  • If a character picks up a cold drink does the reader feel the sweat of the glass?

How do you draw a reader into your world?

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Pictures from Wikimedia Commons: Four Great Beauties by Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan, Yang Guifei