My friend Saveau has a great saying. “You Deserve The Gods You Worship.”
Likewise, I’ve long said that you deserve your social media streams, email inbox and many other areas of your life that you forget that you control. But let’s focus on one of these input streams in particular – your artistic diet.
The art on your walls
The music on your playlists
The books on your shelf
The background on your desktop
That thing dangling from your rear-view mirror
The colors and embellishments in any personal spaces you alone control
Essentially, all the art in your life that you consume on a regular basis.
“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
These things say something about you, in the same way the lines in your skin speak to a palm reader. It reminds me of what the main character of Fight Club says,”What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
But is this Nature or Nurture? Prescriptive or Descriptive? Do you define your artistic choices, or do they define you? And how can you use this to make your writing better? [Read more…]
In addition to all other inalienable Birthday rights, I hereby add – The Birthday Purge and the Birthday Ungift.
Birthday Ungift (noun) – Something you give up on your birthday that makes you happy to have it out of your life.
Birthday Purge (verb) – The act or process of choosing and removing Birthday Ungifts from your life.
In addition to receiving gifts on your birthday, you are allowed to get rid of a thing you no longer want, without question, regardless of the value or source. That thing that you are giving back to the world is your Birthday Ungift. The process of ungifting it is called a Birthday Purge. [Read more…]
The Gap Between “What The Author Meant” And “What The Audience Got”
Recently, I attended/recorded a live reading by Minnesota author William Alexander at Dreamhaven Books. William read/acted out a section of his latest book, Ghoulish Song. William has professional theater training and experience, and if there was any doubt about this, it was resolved by his live performance, which was glorious.
The section he read describes when the protagonist, Ailie, gets separated from her own shadow and has a discussion with it. The shadow spoke in hushed tones that gave me goosebumps as William read them aloud.
I purchased a copy of Ghoulish Song from William and took it home. While reading the story, I came across the part that William had performed. As I read it to myself, I realized that William’s reading was quite different from my own. His tone was dark and disturbing, while my own interpretation was subtle, almost bland. I was interpreting it as a kids book, and not as a scary book.
There was a definite difference between what William was thinking when he wrote it, and what I got from it when I read it. I’m not sure if there’s already a name for this difference, so I’ll simply call it The Gap.
Mind The Gap
There will always be a difference between the author’s intention while writing the book and the actual picture created in the readers’ minds while reading the book. This is bigger than just the audience and authors of written works. It’s an inherent side effect of the way the world works, and how we communicate. [Read more…]
The Power Of Low Compels You… …using a slow, minimalist drone.
Low’s Rock the Garden Show A Little Too Low For Some
The fans and critics loving/hating on Low’s extended drone interpretation of ‘Do You Know How To Waltz?’ have been hard to ignore. Listen for yourself, then ask yourself how you’d feel if you went out to the Rock The Garden concert at the Walker Art Museum and paid $55 to get in.
Despite the message from the band, “Drone, Not Drones,” the reaction at the performance was mostly negative, and devolved online into a social media pissing contest. Twitter accounts broke out for and against the performance. Radio station 99.3 The Current (sponsors of the event) raised the question What Does A Band Owe Us When We Pay To See Them Perform? The comments/responses made the exact same sound as Low’s performance – a vaguely annoying drone:
Old fan…never heard ’em before…loved it…hated it…taking chances…ruined a great opportunity… [Read more…]
Despite just reading a book on how to be more creative and think like a genius, I’m going to give a fairly un-creative and un-genius review of it. (Not that the book didn’t work, mind you. I’m just lazy.)
Anyway, Megacreativity: Five Steps To Thinking Like A Genius by Andrei Aleinikov is chock-full of tools, laws and brain-stretching-perspective-changers to make you definitely more creative, and very possibly more genius-like.
The tools and methods in this book are must-haves for authors. The BAMMA (Brain Attack Multiplied by Morphological Analysis) technique alone is worth the cost of the book, and will have you coming up with (no joke) millions of ideas in minutes. [Read more…]
Is that a joke? Well, the publisher (or whoever wrote the back cover copy) certainly believes in free will.
Author Marie Jones approaches both sides with a fair and open mind. As she says in the book, she is a diplomat. And she covers a lot of ground. From science to religion, astronomy to astrology, DNA to divination, from the Big Bang to who lit the fuse on it, this book is an overview of many aspects to consider regarding the battle of free will vs determinism.
The writing itself is mostly informal and accessible. It’s not a dry college textbook. If you watch Big Bang Theory and don’t need it explained to you, you’ll be fine.
The only thing I didn’t like was the last 29 pages, which were “Stories of Fate and Free Will” which for me, only served to water down the book, making it more consumery and less scholarly. Then again, I found the book in the New-Age section and not the Philosophy section, and I’m sure that was the author’s choice…
To outline, or not to outline, that is a fiction-writers battle as old as fiction-writing itself. Books on writing are as polarized about the subject as authors.
Julia Cameron pretty much paved the path of organic writing in her famous book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Although I don’t think she called the process “organic writing” she showed how anyone can channel their own creativity into writing without using an outline.
On the other hand, Larry Brooks latest book Story Engineering trounces on the process of organic writing, calling it “…nothing short of insane,” and stating that “A scene written organically – without a mission – is already being fitted for a casket.”
So who’s right? I’ve tried organic writing myself several times. One result was my first published short story, Big Game which sold on its first submission, and has reviewed quite well. Another result was a disasterous mess of dark fantasy pseudo-manuscript that shall not be named here, and made me wonder if Larry Brooks was right.
I did some research on plotting methods and the comparison of outlining vs organic writing. Here’s a look at the differences between these two methods and my answer to the question of which is better.
What is Organic Writing? (aka ‘Pantsing’)
Organic Writing is writing free-form, without plan or structure, and no real concern about where the writing is going. Check out free writing or automatic writing. The visual equivalent would be an artist doodling until they stumble upon an image. The musical equivalent would be ‘jamming’ in which a person or group simply plays until some musical structure jumps out of the ether and manifests into a song.
Some fiction writers use organic writing as a tool to flush out a scene, a character, or even a story. They write to find out what their character is like, or where the story or scene leads. The author just… writes, letting a spontaneous flow of words rush through them. The author might be as surprised as anyone else about what hits the page. This is sometimes called discovery or exploratory writing.
I call this exploratory writing tactic “Chasing The Muse.” You let the muse out of the bottle and see where she goes. Sometimes she won’t move even if you prod her with a Tazer. That’s called writer’s block. Sometimes she plods along, (which is where this method also gets jokingly referred to as ‘plodding’ as opposed to ‘plotting’) feeding you a stream of words, and you write it all down.
If you’re lucky the muse runs, and it’s your job as an author to keep up. If it’s 2AM and you’re dead tired but you can’t stop because you’ve been possessed by the spirit of an amazing writer with words flowing faster than you can type them… congratulations, you’ve experienced true organic writing.
Some people call this “Pantsing” which is short for “Seat of the Pants Writing.” Mr. T from The A-Team would call it being “On The Jazz.” Some people call it “insane” and begging for a rejection letter. Those opposed to organic writing suggest a different method – Outlining.
What is Outlining?
Outlining is the method of defining the structure of a story before writing any of it. The analogy is often made to building a house. Planning the structure down to the nearest sixteenth of an inch is crucial if you want to build the house with maximum efficiency and minimum waste.
Likewise with story construction, if you plan out how the story will start, end, and all the pieces between, then when you actually sit down to write the story, you know not only what goes where, but why.
There are various systems of outlining. Some people use notecards. Some use the Outline View in Microsoft Word. Some use the Snowflake Method software by Randy Ingermanson. Some just have the story structure in their head.
Regardless of how they do it, the primary difference between outliners and organic writers is that outliners write from A to B, and organic writers write from A.
Which writing method is better?
Which method is better? Let’s take a look at several different aspects of writing that can be affected:
In both methods, you will do lots of work up front on something that influences the final product but will not necessarily be part of it.
Outliners like to point out that much of the organic writer’s work will be edited or cut later. This is true. This is why organic writing is sometimes called “discovery writing” in which case you are discovering the outline.
But isn’t it also true that you’ll spend a lot of time on outlining? And once the outliner’s work is done, isn’t the organic writer thousands of words ahead?
It’s impossible to say which is a faster method for you. There are just too many variables. How fast do you outline? How fast do you write? How detailed an outline do you need before you start writing? You’ll have to answer these questions for yourself, probably by experimenting with both methods to see which is faster for you. And, as my own experience has shown, which method is faster could change on a project-by-project basis.
Which method results in the best quality writing? Outliners make a good case that your writing will flow better if you know where it’s going before you start. But some argue that outlining results in contrived writing and wooden characters, and organic writing begets more natural prose. I once heard someone remark that if the ending doesn’t surprise the author, it won’t surprise anyone else either.
Your mileage may vary. It’s impossible to say which method will result in better quality writing for you.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Which method is more difficult? It might be more meaningful to consider which method is more fun. If the thought of outlining makes you feel as though you are strapping the muse into a straitjacket… if the constraints of getting from point A to point B give you writer’s block… if the thought of writing thousands of words that might be reworked for hours and/or thrown away makes you reach for the liquor cabinet…
Again, this is a subjective measurement that only you can make for yourself. It’s impossible to say which method will be easier or harder for you.
Really Zero, stop screwing around and tell us! Which method is better?
Sorry folks – after all that analysis, it turns out the whole thing is a trick question. In the logic field of Philosophy, this is what’s known as a False Dichotomy – focusing on two possibilities when there are actually others. In this case, the question of “Which Is Better?” implies that the two can’t both be used.
The truth is you can use both. The wicked truth is that you have to use both.
Structuring and Organic Writing are ingredients, and finding the best possible mix for you is like trying to find the right combination of Jagermeister and Red Bull in your penultimate, writing Jag Bomb.
Let’s take another look at both methods, and see what we missed.
The structural method sounds efficient on the surface. Once the structure is complete, you won’t waste many words filling that structure. Every word you put into that structure will be used to make the story go forward as it should. Very little rework, very little waste. Right?
What exactly are you putting INTO that structure? Well, you know you have to get the scene from plot point A to plot point B, but when it finally comes time to fill that space, how do you do it? What do you fill it with?
That’s right, Organic Writing. At some point you have to stop drawing the outline and start filling it in.
And what happens if you fill that space as directed and when you’re done the scenes are flat? Boring? Contrived? What then? You rewrite.
But what if you rewrite those scenes a dozen times, and they still don’t sing? What if you find the structure is limiting your writing? You restructure.
What happens if your muse starts coloring outside the lines? What happens if your characters won’t behave? What happens if you find a plot hole big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through? What happens if you start writing from point A to point B and discover you’ve ended up at point C, by way of F, Y and the color Blue? What if point C is a far more interesting place than B? Now what do you do?
If you want to keep point C in the story, you’ll have to revisit the structure and adjust everything! You’ll have to change all your foreshadowing, and maybe even the ending… oh boy. Maybe it’s better just to forget you ever discovered point C, get the train back on the structure track and rewrite your way to point B? Rewrite or restructure?
Not quite as easy as you thought, eh? Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
Organic Writing, Revisited
The organic writing method sounds pretty on the surface. Pretty easy too. So easy in fact, that many writers think they can shortcut the process by organically writing a bestseller out of the air. Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
You’re going to throw away or rework a lot of that organic writing. You’ll need to go back and check that the plot flows, and the pacing and that all subplots resolve, and you’ll have to go back and check your foreshadowing and make sure all scenes are leading toward an ending you weren’t even aware of when you started…
Wait a minute! What exactly are you doing to that organic writing?
Surprise! You’re putting structure on it. Yes, you can structure your work after it’s written. And you’d better, unless you are journaling or writing poetry.
The Question, Revisited
Every author outlines, whether they do it intentionally, intuitively, subconsciously, naturally or artificially.
Every author writes organically, unless they are writing technical manuals for the military.
Those who outline have to fill their structures with organic writing. Those writing organically have to rework their organic writing to check/create/enforce a structure.
Without a structure, you don’t have a story, you have a dictionary run through a blender. Without organic writing you have a sterile description of a story.
The questions are not “which method is best?” or “should you outline?” The questions are “how do you outline?” and “how much outlining do you do?”
The Middle Path
Structure is a necessary component of ALL fiction, but whether you apply a structural outline before, after, or even during the creative writing process is not important. In other words, you should have a structure to your finished story, but how you get that outline is up to you. Some authors need to discover the story as they go. Some authors need an outline before they can start.
Between the two extremes are an entire purgatory of options that are overlooked by most authors. What if you organically wrote a story structure? What if you loosened up the story structure, and instead of putting the muse in a straitjacket, you got one of those dog leashes that allows some play before setting a boundary? What if you designed multiple ending structures and wrote each one organically to see which was best?
What works best for me is to bounce back and forth between organic writing and outlining. I write organically for a while, then take a step back to look at the big picture, and adjust the outline as necessary. Here is a link to a process called phase drafting which is very similar to what I’ve learned to do on my own. Yes, I rewrite a lot. No, it’s not easy. Need I say it again? Good writing is hard work.
The method that will work best for *you* is… whatever works best for you. If you want to improve your writing, read about organic writing in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and read about story structure in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. But don’t let Julia Cameron, Larry Brooks or even me tell you how to write. Learn the ingredients and then mix your own drink to taste.
Part of the adventure of becoming a writer is making the craft your own, and experimenting to find a method that feels good to you and helps you release your best writing.
Buying Local isn’t just a way for hipsters to make themselves feel better about their consumeristic behavior patterns. There’s another major benefit of buying local that many people don’t realize.
An Author’s Incomes
As a member of the MNSpec Writer’s Group, I see many fellow authors struggling for months or even years with their stories, laboring to make their novels the very best that they can. Despite what Na-no-wri-mo would have you believe, novels take a long time to write well. Musicians and Filmmakers would agree with Authors that good art takes a lot of time, resources, and a lot of physical, mental and emotional energy.
When you finally finish that sure-to-be-a-bestseller, when you finally see the hard copy on the bookstore shelf or view the listing online, there’s more than just money soon to be coming your way. In fact, there are several different ‘incomes’ that you receive as an author.
There’s the satisfaction of a completed project. Fan mail. Reviews. Stalkers.
Death threats from political/religious factions will start up, but the death threats from your agent and publisher will stop, so that’s a wash.
But one of the incomes that will always bring you a warm fuzzy is the simple action of selling your book to someone.
Signing a book for someone, dedicating it to them specifically and handing it to them directly is a perk of being an author that few people will ever get to enjoy. This is an invisible currency, but every bit as valuable as cash.
I had the opportunity to experience this myself firsthand. Handing out copies of The Blackness Within (a compilation containing my first published short story, Big Game) to my friends and family was a thrill in itself, but there was more:
“Aren’t you going to sign it? You have to sign it!”
They didn’t just want my story. They wanted it signed by the author.
I’ve been on the Please-Sign-This-Book-For-Me side of the street many times before, so I know exactly how that feels. But the feeling that comes from autographing books for other people – part humility, part pride, part hack and part superstar – is a rare blend. Maybe famous authors get used to it, but for unfamous local authors like myself who are still amazed that they actually got their work published, much less that anyone would want to read it…
The sale is nice and all, but the bonus compensation of Gratitude and Praise are part of a writer’s income that makes me feel good about what I’ve done. That it was actually worth the countless late nights, lunches and weekends spent slaving over a hot keyboard when I could have been doing… well, pretty much anything else.
Supporting Your Local Arts and Artists
If you really love books, then check out local authors at readings and book signings. Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis has a continuing series of monthly readings by local Speculative Fiction authors, and you’ll see plenty of regulars from the MNSpec Writer’s Group in attendance.
Sure, you could jump online and buy the book right now. Or you could go to the used bookstore and get it dirt cheap. But think about it. The author gets nothing from your purchase of a second-hand book, and you’ve also denied them the satisfaction of interacting with the people who read their work. You’ve also denied yourself the experience of meeting the person who made the book possible. Learning what the author is like might make you more (or less) excited about buying their books.
When you buy directly from the author, you not only get the book you wanted, but you’re giving back a lot more than just a purchase. You are casting your vote for the kind of art you want to see in your area.
Best of all, you’ll be able to say that you helped out one of your own local authors, and that you actively support your local arts community.
…at least that’s what my friend said. We were talking about web design and web copy writing, but we could just as easily have been talking about writing in general. It made me wonder about the purpose(s) other writers might have for writing novels. Now I’m certainly not going to turn down cash for my writing, and I don’t know an author who would, but that isn’t the primary reason that I write.
What is it then? Why do I write? You’d think a Philosophy major would have asked themselves that question before typing a single word, but I’d never really thought about it before. Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through such a notoriously frustrating, unflattering, and poorly-paying field that makes a career in porn sound more rewarding? [Read more…]