Archive for the ‘On writing’ Category

Yoga as process and plot

Monday, January 15th, 2018

My VP20 bud Jill and I were discussing writing yesterday, as you do, specifically plotting and process. Figuring out one’s writing process is hard; Jill compared it to making “tester pancakes,” the first couple of pancakes in a batch before you get into the rhythm of pouring and flipping and getting them off the heat when they’re finished. The frustrating thing is how each time you start to make pancakes, you still end up with those few wrong-sized, over- or under-cooked griddle messes before they start to look right. This probably happens even if you’re a pro pancake maker and you’ve been doing it for years; certainly plenty of pro writers have said as much. About writing, not pancakes, though I’m sure lots of writers make pancakes, too. They’re good breakfast foods, Brent.

Jill wished she could come up with a comparison to something in her life, something she has a lot of experience with, so she could get a better grasp of her process. She mentioned yoga, and since I’ve done yoga as well, that immediately made sense to me. I’m not a yoga guru, so someone with more knowledge about the subject may want to step in and correct me, but here’s a distillation of the conversation Jill and I had.

Depending on what kind of yoga you do, the experience is all about flow. Movement and breath, focus and presence. Finding balance in one pose and transferring both stillness and energy to the next pose. Recognizing the individual steps you take to reposition yourself while not losing sight of the whole effect you’re trying to achieve in the finished pose. Paying attention. You also need to be aware of your own personal limitations; not everyone can do every pose, but sometimes fear holds you back more than actual skill or ability, and sometimes you have to try and fail a few times before you can ultimately succeed.

Replace “yoga” with “writing” and it still makes a lot of sense. As a process, writing involves being focused and present with what you’re working on, which can be challenging when you have outside distractions in your environment or personal life. You have to figure out how to balance writing with whatever else you have to do, and find ways to calm your mind while also bringing an essential energy to your work so it doesn’t feel lifeless. You need to look at what you’re doing in both a granular and holistic way, breaking the process down into tasks you can accomplish more easily while making sure those tasks work toward a clear overall goal. It’s also tempting to avoid trying new things because you think you can’t do them–and maybe right now you can’t, but you’ll never know unless you try, and you learn by doing. No writing is ever wasted.

Plotting a story or novel can work in a similar fashion. You can think of each scene or chapter as a pose, and the overall story or book as a session. You have an opening and a closing, and between that you have moments of destabilization and balance, with an overall pulse and rhythm. Think of each pose and how you start by picturing what it will be like, then you ease into it and hold it, then picture the next pose and ease out of the existing one and into the next. Intention, motion, presence, new intention, transition; the process repeats as many times as necessary to reach the climax. And then, at the end, the blessed cooldown.

As Jill pointed out, some sessions use a focus pose, which influences the other poses selected and how they flow from one to the next. You can use something similar in your work, whether as a theme to tie everything together, or as a recurring motif or image, or even as the climactic event you’re working toward. And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like having a full roadmap as you go, that’s fine; the cool thing about yoga is that one pose can flow into multiple possible poses, and sometimes it’s more satisfying to be completely present in the moment and let the next pose surprise you instead of having a clear idea of all the poses you intend to attempt in a session.

If you’re trying to figure out your own process, it’s worth thinking of something you do routinely, like yoga, that you can use as a comparison or model. Consider how that thing works, what procedures or motions it involves, and whether there’s any way you can apply the same principles to a writing method that feels familiar and satisfying. Always keep in mind that any process can be changed if it’s not working, and that a process that works for one story or novel may not work for the next. That’s okay! Life is its own process, and we all make it up as we go.

Creative versus technical imagination

Monday, February 29th, 2016

Wonderbook has a great discussion about creative imagination versus technical imagination. If you don’t already own it, consider this a soft sell. Break some pots, cut some tall grass, get sufficient rupees together and take them to your local shop ship.


Your creative imagination is where your ideas come from, and what you should ideally be using to write your first drafts. It’s the weird stuff, the delirium and the dark bits, what happens in dreams such that you wake up and feel unsettled or awestruck. It’s usually the place where your excitement to write comes from as well, the unrestricted child-mind that delights in the act of creation without worrying about the final product.

Your technical imagination, on the other hand, is what you use to take all the creative stuff and arrange it into a pleasing and understandable form. It’s still imaginative and creative because you have to make thoughtful choices when it comes to structure and diction and syntax and imagery and so on. But it’s kind of like the difference between designing a building and drawing up its plans so someone else can put it together.

It’s really important to let the creative part do its job without the technical stuff getting in the way. It’s not that the two are inherently, completely separate–there’s a lot of overlap, especially as you level up your writing skill. But often when you lose the spark that got you writing in the first place, it’s because the technical imagination is taking over too soon. Some people call this the inner editor, but that voice is often more disparaging than constructive, so it’s worth separating the two.

Okay, explanations are fun, but how do you make it stop?

Unfortunately, that’s a really personal thing, because it often ties into mental health issues. So what works for one person may be useless to another. Some things you can try:

  • Setting a timer for ten minutes and writing the whole time without stopping. Take a break, repeat as needed.
  • Meditating before you start writing, so you’re more focused and relaxed.
  • Noting while you write when the technical imagination or inner editor starts being generally critical or distracting you with revision notes, then returning your attention to the actual writing. Noting is just an acknowledgement of the thing; don’t focus on it or give it any mental space beyond that.
  • Creating some kind of outline before you start, in whatever format you like, to whatever degree of detail helps rather than hinders.
  • Fostering friendships with people so you can encourage each other whenever you’re flagging.

Last note: don’t let guilt and fear take over your writing process. Guilt for not writing consistently. Fear of producing garbage, or of running out of ideas. Your time is your own, and you choose what to do with it. You don’t owe anyone anything. Write whatever you want, however you want, and let other people decide whether they want to come along for the ride. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to write well and improve as you go, but don’t get so bogged down in mechanics that your creativity starves. Find the thing that makes you WANT to write and feed that first.

How to apply critique, part 2

Friday, September 11th, 2015

So you’ve given your work time to cool off and you’re ready to dig in and get dirty. Again, there are no shortcuts and no consistent maps to follow, but generally speaking, here are some tips to maximize effectiveness.

1) Take notes before, during and maybe after.

You probably already have notes, sure, but more things may occur to you as you read and revise. Maybe even after you’ve finished a revision and are, say, trying to relax in a hot shower before bedtime. Don’t rely on your memory to supply and store this information, because your memory is a fickle friend and will bail on you at the worst possible moment.

How you take the notes is up to you. Write in the margins of a printed version, or on a separate sheet of paper. Use the Comments feature in the word processing program of your choice. Plaster your wall with sticky notes. Create a wiki or a story bible. Dictate to a recording device or your spunky personal secretary. But be as clear as possible or you’re setting yourself up for a “what’s in my pocket” riddle game later.

2) Pay attention to what you’re doing.

This seems like a really obvious thing, but it can be surprising how automated our actions become sometimes. If you quickly rip through your work “fixing errors,” you’re less likely to internalize the rules and reasoning behind those changes. Slow down. Focus. Think about the why and the how, and the ways everything connects. The more conscious you are of what you’re doing now, the better your subconscious will be able to apply these lessons later.

3) Proceed in the way that works best for you (this time).

Everyone has their own process, and you have to figure out yours. Maybe you like to go in order, starting at the beginning and moving through until you reach the end. Maybe you prefer to skip around, tackling the easiest problems first and leaving the hard nuts for last–or vice versa. Maybe you compartmentalize by edit type, dealing separately with typos, dialogue, description, structure and so on.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, except in the sense that you want to try to avoid duplicating effort or getting mired in a pit of “I can’t do this” despair. If one approach isn’t working, try another. What works with one project may not be ideal for another.

How to apply critique, part 1

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is revise. It’s bad enough when we’ve only got the voices in our head telling us stuff, but add to that the opinions of our peers and it can quickly become a too many cooks situation. It takes a lot to make a stew, and you don’t want yours to end up a huge pot of yuck.

So what’s a writer to do when faced with a plethora of critiques? There are no perfect answers and no shortcuts, but there are some things you can consider when developing a plan of action.

1) Is everyone saying the same thing?

If most or all of the people who read your work have the same comment, you should probably give it more weight than a comment only offered by one person. That isn’t to say you should edit by committee, or that one person can’t be right when ten are wrong, but the consistency of a reaction can be a strong indicator of its validity.

2) Who is giving you the feedback?

Some people are better readers, better writers and/or better editors, whether from natural ability or extensive experience. Some people are more familiar with the genre conventions of whatever you’re writing, and some are new to the neighborhood. Some people are your friends and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Comments from a seasoned pro in your genre are likely to be more useful than ones from a buddy who doesn’t write.

That isn’t to say you should only seek out a narrow range of beta readers, or that you should always embrace a critique from an authority figure, or that you should immediately discard feedback from a friend, relative or perceived noob. Bad advice can come from anyone, and good advice is still good no matter the source.

3) Is the advice right for your work?

One thing I noted in my “how to critique” post is that readers should ideally summarize what they read to be sure they’re on the same page as the writer. If the summaries don’t match, either the writer needs to work harder to communicate better, or the reader’s comprehension level wasn’t good.

With that in mind, sometimes you’ll get advice that isn’t bad, but isn’t right for YOUR story or poem. Maybe it doesn’t mesh with the themes you’re trying to explore. Maybe it changes the tone in a way you don’t like. Maybe it introduces plot elements you don’t want to handle. It’s your job to set your own goals and work to meet them, not to change your story to make it what someone else thinks it should be.

Always remember: it’s your work, and you should only use feedback that takes it in the direction YOU want it to go. That direction can change, and that’s okay! Sometimes we want to go to bad places and part of the process is figuring out those places are bad and we should go somewhere else instead. But it’s always your choice in the end.

Also remember: as personal as it may be, your work is not you. A critique of your work is not a critique of you as a person. It’s also not an indictment of you as a writer to admit that you can do better. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has room to grow.

How to respond to critique

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

This is both easier and harder to nail down, because what can seem perfectly reasonable to one person may look petulant or rude to another. But as with all my diatribes here, I aim to simplify matters so you at least have some baseline from which to proceed. And while this is geared towards online groups, most of it is generally applicable.

1) Thank the person for their time.

Whether you are happy or sad or angry or indifferent to their opinions, you must acknowledge that this fellow human has taken the time to read your work and offer you feedback in an effort to help you improve it. This is Being Polite. It is a vital skill to have in the world of writing and the world at large.

2) Answer any questions that are specifically directed at you.

In certain workshop styles, the person whose stuff is being workshopped sits quietly while everyone else talks, taking notes and absorbing the conversation. Sometimes a reader will ask a question, but it will be rhetorical or directed at anyone else reading it. Sometimes, though, you will be directly asked to clarify something or provide essential information, say about your goals or some back story not included in an excerpt. So, do that.

3) Ask any questions you have about the critique.

If you don’t understand what someone is telling you, it’s not going to help you improve your work, so it’s reasonable to want clarification sometimes. You can also solicit more feedback that is specifically tailored to your own concerns–say, whether a piece of dialogue sounds natural, or a character’s choice seems reasonable. But watch what you ask and how you ask it: there’s a difference between “Was my theme clear and consistent?” and “Didn’t you see the part where I…?”

4) Thank the person again.

Seriously though, manners. Even if you think they are poop from a butt and you’re never going to listen to their advice.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Be gracious, be considerate and be open-minded. We’re all digging in the word-mines together, and we’re all dirty and tired, but we all want to help each other strike gold.