Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Get My Best Ideas On the Treadmill

For some people, inspiration hits them in dreams or while meditating or during conversation. For me, it often hits at the gym. Exercise triggers something and the neurons start firing. No doubt somebody somewhere has studied this. Maybe it's related to endorphins. I started exercising as a way to address depression, but it's proven a useful tool for conquering writer's block and collecting ideas for new stories.

When I get on the cardio machine, I start thinking about my story. I may even focus on a scene or element that's giving me trouble. But I don't actively try to solve the problem. I just contemplate that section, holding it in my brain, sometimes telling myself the story. When things start clicking, I grab my ipod and text myself.

The ideas that hit at the gym don't always pan out. Like dreams, they might not make much sense later. "Why did I think a giant purple hippo would work here?" I may find myself wondering. But even when that happens, the process seems to shake something loose and open the door for the right idea to find its way in.

Confession time - I don't actually go on the treadmill itself at the gym. I prefer the eliptical machine. Maybe its the result of too many sitcoms where some poor shlub can't keep up with the machine and they slide all over the floor instead. Or maybe I developed an aversion when I learned that the treadmill was developed in Victorian England as a punishment for prisoners, part of the "hard labor" sentences - 6 hours a day on a hideous version of a giant gerbil wheel, designed to force prisoners to lift their legs extra high. If they didn't, and couldn't keep up with the machine, the result could be ugly - a lot uglier than any of those sitcoms. I believe Oscar Wilde spent his prison time on the treadmill. Maybe some of his stories were born there. But I wouldn't recommend 6 hours a day. I think I'll stick with my 30 minute workout.

Where and when does inspiration hit you?

For a little more background on treadmills, check out

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Writing Communities In the Digital Age

I've been thinking about the magic of critique groups and wondering how it translates into the digital forum. I'm in two groups at the moment - one that meets live and in-person at a cozy neighborhood coffee shop once a week and the other born from a face-to-face workshop experience that is trying to recapture that energy through a monthly, digital exchange. The live, in-person energy is so powerful and digital communication is such a different realm. I wonder if the give-and-take, push--and-pull exploratory exchange and support of the in-person critique group can actually transfer to a digital format?

Our digital group has gotten off to a terrific start, but I think I need to learn how to critique and share ideas more effectively in that forum. I miss the capacity to write comments directly onto the page and interact physically with the printed word of another author. I miss the ideas that are born from the free-flowing conversation. I question whether I'm providing the proper nuance to my words that will allow another author to hear what I say without the unintentional sting criticism can sometimes carry. I wonder if my own responses are too much, too little, or seem defensive when they're not meant to. There is an art to giving criticism that is honest and useful while also being supportive and encouraging. There is an art to hearing and receiving criticism of your "baby."

What strategies have you used to translate the face-to-face critique experience into the digital world? What challenges have you faced? How have you overcome them? Are there ways in which you prefer the digital writing community to a live writing community?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fearless Revision

"What if I rewrite the whole thing in first person?"
"What if I cut this chapter entirely?"
"What if death is the narrator?"
"What if there are 4 different narrators?"
"What if I write it as a blog?"
"What if she turns into a hippo instead of a moose?"

There was a time when I revised like an ancient, nearsighted clockmaker, turning over every word and phrase, tinkering with the minutest mechanism, making miserly revisions as if each change cost me and each letter was crafted from grains of diamond dust. I love treating words with so much affection and care, but I'm thankful that I have finally developed the courage to make more fearless revisions, skydiving, bungee-jumping revisions, the kind of revisions that change the entire landscape of a manuscript.

My whole critique group seems to have entered this phase of development together, which makes it ten times more exhilarating. When one of us announces, "I think I'm going to cut that whole section and move the important parts here instead," we cheer, we exult. It feels like we've all gone cliff-diving together.

Perhaps the support and safety of this long-term critique group has given me the foundation of confidence to take those plot-shattering leaps. Or maybe this liberation comes with writing novel-length pieces. Perhaps it's a function of exposing myself, over a period of time, to multiple critiques. Or maybe being in the habit of writing has made the words less scarce and therefore less precious, the process less like mining gold and more like cultivating a garden.

What is the most fearless, radical change you've ever made in a piece of your own writing? How did it affect the story?

If you've found yourself saying, "What if I ....?" or "I wonder what would happen if ...." then I challenge you to grab the hands of some fellow writers and take that vigorous plunge! What have you got to lose?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How You See It and How You Say It

"It's all in how you see it," some people say. For writers, that means point of view, which has to be one of the more challenging, complex and, to my mind, fascinating topics of the writer's craft. Point of view is more than just first person or third person. Point of view is about immediacy and risk. Whenever I learn about or explore point of view, I find myself thinking in cinematic terms. Where is the lens of my reader's camera located? Where is their microphone located? How tight is the close-up? Does my story need a more panoramic or epic scope?

Even tense can play a role in point of view. I just made the risky move of rewriting the first scene of my latest novel in first person, present tense. It has a level of immediacy, intimacy and high-risk involvement like no other, but it comes with a price. You have to place all sorts of limits on your access to information, since you can only share what your narrator knows at or before the point in time of the action. But I have to say, my pulse is racing and I feel like I'm going for the jugular a lot more in the first person, present tense. It's almost an adrenaline rush.

How you see it can also drive how you say it. I'm thinking about that elusive quality known as voice. So hard to define. You just know it when you see it. Too often I reread my stuff and am disgusted by how flat it seems, the way it lays there on the page after being run through my critical, analytical, disengaged and dispassionate mill one too many times. Then I'll write something for a workshop exercise and it just leaps off the page. Voice.

When I shift point of view, it can blow voice wide open. To me, finding the voice when you're not writing in first person seems so much harder, and when it comes to YA literature, I keep coming back to the first person point of view. No intermediary between the reader and the protagonist.

At a minimum, if you're struggling to find the voice of your story, I think it's worth it to rewrite a pivotal scene from a variety of points of view. You may be amazed by what you discover. If you're lucky, you'll find the right voice before you've finished an entire draft. If you're like me, you might end up rewriting your whole novel from a different point of view. But the risk is worth the pay-off. At least, that's how I see it.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Written In Stone

I'm taking another whack at the magical realism novel I started a while back and I've discovered that the process I'm following for it seems different than for the last project, which was straight-up realistic fiction. My office looks like a giant craft project. I find myself immersed in cut-and-paste, sticky note extravaganzas, drawing pictures, taping things together, and paper-clipping bits and pieces onto eachother. I can't seem to stay in the realm of the computer. The world of the computer feels too small, as if its physical size and shape imprisons the story. It got me wondering, has writing changed as the tools of writing have changed? Do our tools affect not only our process but our product, too - that is, our stories themselves? Would the great writers of the past have produced different stories if they worked on computer?

A typewriter sends the words onto a page that flaps freely in the air. The words have a physical reality the moment you type them. Writing by hand has a messy, lively, organic flow to it. Writing by hand with a pencil, a pen, a quill - each tool seems to connect with different experiences in the brain and body, a different sense of artistry, permanency, open-ness.

On the computer, we can write and delete huge chunks of text with such ease. The words come and go like will-o-the-wisps. But their ethereal spirits are trapped inside this skinny little two-dimensional box.

How would my work change if I wrote on stone tablets? How would your work change?

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