Friday, July 13, 2018

Craft Book: Zen in the Art of Writing

A few months ago, I went on a bit of a shopping spree at the bookstore. I was craving a deep dive back into the craft of writing, so I splurged on a handful of recent novels and a variety of craft books that I hoped would get me back into the right mindset to write. I've been making my way through the stack and it has been quite helpful in keeping me moving right along in my quest to write and publish a novel.

One of the craft books I purchased was Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. I've read a few of Bradbury's books - Farenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man - so I was interested to read what he had to say about the art of writing. I was also drawn in by the title, as I've recently begun a regular mediation practice and was curious to see how Zen played into his thoughts on writing. (Writing Down the Bones, which I wrote about here, actually has more in the way of Zen practices tied to writing for those that are interested.)

In general, I would say that this book is not my favorite of the craft books that I have read. This is because the essays in it mainly focus on how Bradbury's ideas came to be or what he was thinking when he wrote certain pieces. The book as a whole seems more targeted toward fans of his work than those who hope to write their own stories. 

That being said, there were two passages that stood out to me. The first is about finding beauty and meaning in unexpected circumstances:

"In other words, if your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him; which is, of course, what horse manure has always been about."

The second quote is also about beauty and how we as writers find and create beauty in the world:

"We never sit anything out.

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.

The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."

As writers, this is what we need to remember. That everything we experience, all of the seemingly mundane aspects of our daily lives can be turned into something beautiful, if only we can figure out how to filter out the extras and let the beautiful parts out into the world.

If you're a fan of Bradbury's work and want to begin a writing career, I'd recommend this book. If you're not as familiar with Bradbury's work, I would argue that there are other craft books out there that do a good job of appealing to a variety of writers, but there are some gems here too if you are willing to look.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Exercise Your Mind By Reading

"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." 

- Joseph Addison

Every summer since I was young, I've made it a habit to read as many books as I can. I take a book to the beach; I take one on a hike; I listen to an audio book while I work in the garden or drive to my vacation destination. 

As much as I love to be active in the summer months and go on adventures, after a long day of being out in the sun there's nothing like sitting on the porch with a big slice of watermelon or a glass of iced tea and reading a good book. That's why this quote resonated so well with me. I love to exercise and move my body, but I need to work my brain in equal portions otherwise I start to feel totally out of whack.

I like to have a range of books to read close at hand, because I think it's good to have a variety of choices when it's time to stretch your mind. Usually I have a novel (sometimes two if I have an audio book on my phone), and either a book of narrative nonfiction, a collection of essays, or a collection of short stories on hand that I'm moving through simultaneously. This gives me a chance to exercise my mind in different ways depending on what I have time to work on and what I'm in the mood for at a given moment. 

What's your favorite way to exercise your mind?

Friday, July 6, 2018

On Reading Widely

At some point in my childhood, I remember reading somewhere that if you want to be a writer you should read widely and indiscriminately. The argument was that everything you read, even the back of the cereal box, could help improve your understanding of language and thus prepare you for a career as a wordsmith.

Now, as an adult, I've read widely enough to know what I like and don't like. The only time I'll be writing copy for the back of a cereal box (as far as I can imagine) is to add details to a scene in a novel. So, the reading of cereal boxes would only take me so far as a novelist. Still, as a kid I took this advice to heart, and even now, given enough time, I'll read just about anything that I can get my hands on if someone I trust has recommended it to me. (That someone could be my mom, my sister, a friend, a coworker, the librarian, the newspaper, any number of bookish accounts I follow on social media - you get the picture.)

I love to read and I love to read widely, across genre. I've mentioned before my thoughts on nonfiction, but even within the confines of fiction I find vast oceans of possibilities for adventure. On a recent trip to the library, for example, I picked up a book I'd read a review of recently as well as a collection of short stories because I've been experimenting with that form as a writer and I thought it would be a nice break from the other things I'd been reading.

Of course, my desire to read widely has lead me down some dead ends. I don't always love the books I pick up, which means they quietly get pushed to the back of the shelf, or in extreme cases the donation bin, while I move on to something else.

My taste in books means too that sometimes I'm right in line with what other people are reading and can chat easily about shared books. At other times, I'm way off what my friends or family is interested in and so I have gotten odd looks from people who aren't used to my highly eclectic taste. This is one of the reasons why I would find it hard to join a book club. I'm unlikely to find other people close by who share my ever changing tastes. (I once spent an entire summer reading books about Maine lobstermen and their work.)

All in all though, my favorite books can lead to some great conversations. Recently I recounted the story of a book I'd read and enjoyed to my boyfriend. We ended up talking a lot about the central themes, even though he hadn't read the book. We spent most of an hour long walk talking about this book and the ideas it represented.

Even though I sometimes get strange looks from acquaintances and don't always finish every book I read, I think that reading widely has given me a new outlook as a writer. It makes me feel more willing to take risks and try writing in different voices, because I know that as a reader, some of my favorite stories are the unexpected ones.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy 4th of July!

It's the 4th of July! A celebration of freedom and (to be honest) the dog days of summer. Here in New England we are in the midst of a heat wave, so I am spending my day at the beach. I hope that you are able to relax and enjoy the day as well, no matter where you are.

Although I fully intend to relax and enjoy some quiet time on this fine holiday, I always like to have a notebook with me, just in case I have some downtime. After all, you can't wait for inspiration to strike, you have to show up and get to work every day. Plus some of my best ideas have come to me when my toes were in the sand.

Whatever you're doing today, relax and enjoy!

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Internal Editor and Suspension of Disbelief

Imagine for a moment that you're walking through a forest and a unicorn says hello to you. How do you respond?

A. Tell yourself that unicorns aren't real and continue walking until you find the nearest mental health clinic
B. Say hi back and ask which way to the fountain of youth
C. Ask the unicorn how her day is going and try to make a new friend

If you chose options B or C, congratulations, you've successfully suspended your disbelief for the purposes of this exercise.

What's the purpose of all this? Well part of the fun of reading is suspension of disbelief. The reader has to be willing to let go of some elements of realism or logic in order to fully enjoy the story. If the story is well told, it becomes easier for the reader to do this. An interesting story doesn't have to make sense in the real world, so long as the reader is willing to go along with the premise the writer sets up.

I was reminded of this recently while working on my novel. I had a strange idea that I decided to move along with even though I wasn't sure if the idea actually made sense. On the one hand I wanted to run with it, but my internal editor was nagging me with science and reason.

Then I thought about the book that I had just finished reading. I had flown through it, reading late into the night to find out what would happen next. The whole premise was built around an idea that wasn't scientifically possible, but without it you wouldn't have a book. I remembered that as a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief in order to be immersed in a compelling story.

So, I told the internal editor to shut up with her science and reason, made a pot of coffee, and got back to work. Always, always, get back to work.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Join Me at Camp NaNoWriMo This July!

Need some motivation this summer to keep your work in progress progressing? Join me at Camp NaNoWriMo this summer for inspiration, motivation, commiseration, and 31 frenzied writing days and nights.

(No, I'm not being paid for this post, but I'm participating in Camp this July and I'd like to encourage you to give it a try too if you want to add something else to your already very busy schedule.)

For those of you that don't know, Camp NaNoWriMo is an off shoot of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for those of us that just need a bit of community to get our writing projects started. The basic premise is that you define a project and set a goal for yourself.

I'm going with a goal of 30,000 words added to my novel in progress but you can set a lower/higher word limit; you can write a certain number of pages; you can work for a certain number of hours; you can write poetry or a graphic novel. There's a lot of freedom involved in defining what your project will be. The basic premise is that you set a goal and work tirelessly in pursuit of it for a month.

Although they typically encourage you to start from scratch, I'm using this as an opportunity to build on what I've already done in hopes of getting to the larger goal of finishing a draft of my novel by the end of the summer.

I have only participated in NaNoWriMo one other time, in November of 2008. I "won" that year by writing 50,000 words of a novel before the month was up. It was great fun to participate, but because I was so focused on getting words on the page, most of what I wrote wasn't fabulous. That's why this time I'm setting myself a smaller goal for the month and using the experience as a stepping stone to my larger goal of finishing a draft by the end of summer. I'm not so much focused on "winning" at Camp as I am hoping to write a great book.

I hope that you'll join me, whatever your writing goal may be!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Why I Still Prefer to Hand Write a First Draft

When it comes to writing a novel, there are many ways to begin.

Some people may choose to dive right in, typing away on a laptop, tablet, or desktop without a solid plan. Some people may begin by scribbling notes and outlining the story on napkins or in notebooks. Some people may use a voice recorder on their phone to tell the story out loud.

For me, the best process is to write by hand first and type my work into a word processor on my laptop later. This adds a bit of time to the process, but for me it's worth it. Here are three reasons why I still prefer to hand write a first draft.

Handwriting forces you to work slowly. Even with a smooth, quick writing pen, you will find that handwriting lends itself to slow work more easily than typing does. Typing was designed to streamline the writing process, and I often feel the need to work quickly when I'm typing. When you write with pen (or pencil) and paper, you give yourself room to take the ideas in and think about them, to retrace your letters or doodle in the margins while you think of the perfect wording for the next sentence.

Handwriting gives you greater control over the page. When you type, your text has to fit into the confines of what the computer believes text is supposed to look like. If you want to change the size of the font or the spacing of the lines, you have to be taken out of the writing and into the settings menu to change these things. On the physical page, you can add in a note to yourself in the margins or in the middle of the text if you want (this will have to get fixed later, etc.) by simply drawing a box around it, without ever having your pen stop moving. If you get stuck mid paragraph, you can easily draw a picture of your character in the scene to help you imagine what words you're missing. There's no extra clicking, no resizing to fit, you just keep the pen moving no matter what.

Handwriting allows for a true first draft. The first draft of a novel should be messy. It should be full of holes and ideas that didn't pan out. That's what first drafts are for - you try out some ideas, mix them around and eventually after some digging, you figure out what the real story is about. On the computer, it's easier to cut and paste, delete, and find and replace as you're writing, so that the first draft no longer reflects the process, it becomes more of a finished product early on in the process. Some might argue that this can be a good thing. On the contrary, I think that it limits the creative process by stifling some of the idea generation that can happen during the writing of a first draft. If you become entrenched in the editing process too early, you lose a willingness to follow ideas that may or may not fit within your main story. Those same ideas can often lend a richness to your prose that would otherwise be lost in the editing process.

If you have a story to tell, the most important thing is that the story gets told. No matter how you choose to tell it, the process should be enjoyable and spark creativity. For me, the easiest way to that spark of creativity going is by using pen and paper to begin. What's your favorite method for writing your first draft?