Intimate Conspirators


It is hard to explain the process of writing a novel to people. There is so much brain power that goes into writing a novel. You have to be constantly planning and thinking. A novel takes over your head-space and it becomes an obsession. And once you write one, you know you can write more — better. It is frustrating and beautiful and it is the ultimate test to finding out if you can tell the story without looking away or giving up. With the creative power comes complicated spiritual, mental, imaginative, and ethical moving parts that move perpetual. These are just a few of those parts, but they are a good place to start. 

The Great Disappointment 
The novel not yet written is everything to a writer. Characters, plot, twists, language, the work, writing in coffee shops all seem so honest to the writer who has yet to write. There are endless possibilities to writing when you’ve committed nothing to paper. This is a visionary place of repose. The writer is all at once a visionary and a complete bull-shitter. The potential of what could be is limitless. And then the novelist begins to write. And you begin to make choices. 

In a book titled Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, he says, “A significant part of the writer’s practice – maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes – is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Once you commit your ideas to real words, real chapters, real things, we see the talent collide with the dream. As far as the writing goes, you may do well for a few pages, but you are still making choices. You may even make a run to page fifteen or twenty until you hit your first problem. It’s a crucible, a test, a moment. And then it gets hard. This is where the writing begins. You may skip over this issue and write something else. But when you get to the next problem — you will begin to doubt your novel and wonder why it is all falling apart. You may even wonder if this is worth it. Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction also mentions “the idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead.” We must “work ourselves” into accepting this novel and that it will not be easy. 

I should mention that when the rough gets going in my writing, my craft journal gets a lot of new entries. The journal is made for solving and dealing with issues and problems. It really is a journal of disasters because all I do is work on what I am thinking and why it isn’t working. I highly recommend keeping one and showing it to no one. It is your personal space. More importantly, this is your running thought process as you write. In a few months, this journal becomes your archive to what you were thinking and feeling at the time. (More on journals here). 

As we write, we make choices, and I’ve used this word intentionally. Every time we make a choice in our novel, we are slowly moving the characters and the story to its completion (like a giant game of chess). Creativity is choice (what color, what effect, what do we want to say, is it enough, is it too much?). When we begin to choose we begin to resign ourselves to fastening our ideas into place. And like building a good foundation, from there we will hang more things on what we’ve already created. If your writing hold up through the great disappointment and survives, it is likely that you have a novel worth writing. Keep writing. And there’s good news. 

The Act of Writing 
In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains that “a writer’s practice involves discovery, previously hidden things revealed by doing…. They will only reveal themselves to me as I write. This is not something mystical; it is merely a semi-organized, semi-systematic way of thinking.” And while I really like the clarity of this idea, I think it is semi-organized because in writing novels we can’t possibly know hundreds of details (choices) and concepts all at once, but pulled along a plot, built scene by scene – we can see an emerging design. Discovery in the act of writing is the lifeblood of my writing — it is why I write – to find things out. And it is completely undersold in writing books, courses, and articles on Medium


And to that point, writing produces more writing. And more importantly, the process of writing and making those “choices” into a powerful tool. I know there are a lot of writers and books that discuss knowing everything before they sit down to write. But that isn’t why I write. The greatest moments of creativity, vision, and emotion don’t come from some half baked outline on my computer. It comes from the very act of writing.  

Writing is a process of discovery and you have to be there, eyes wide open and really paying attention. You will come to see where a story takes on a life of its own, where it moves off script, where it blossoms out of words and into eloquence. You have to find it, write it, become intimate conspirators with the words. And then one day you will have an epiphany and realize, “that’s it, I found what I’ve been looking for.” You will know it because it will take your breath away, it will fire off neurons that have been waiting for a decade to fire off. It will create an emotional response. It is a feeling like falling in love, it is a feeling that you have tapped into something bigger than you, it is a feeling that you have created something new and emotionally important. And then you have walked into the light of artistic prose writing. 

Your Trophy
As a novelist there is no trophy. I would even go a step further and ask you a question that is raised in Why They Can’t Write — that writer’s seldom know or even have an clear process or effective gauge to measure their writing skills. “This is true for every writer regardless of experience and regardless of past success. There is no such thing as terminal proficiency.” Do you really know when you are done editing? Do you think if you rewrite the book again an agent might change their mind? Do you think — why isn’t this good enough? Maybe you are holding up your writing to something already written, a great novel, or something like a great novel – is that terminal proficiency? 

Look at the submission guidelines and ask yourself, am I all that? Should I jump through all those hoops to get someone to read my work? What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t answer? Is your work good enough? Are you at terminal proficiency? No one is going to tell you you are a writer. The hardest part of writing is the open ended, seemingly never-satisfied world that reads your book – I liked this but didn’t like that. It’s not right for me. Doesn’t fit. And there will be every reason to believe you are not ready. 

You are.  

Creative Writing: The Map of Interpretation and Perfection

In the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, there is an interesting notion about the abstraction of physics (specifically in the formulation) and what is really happening in sub-atomic space. Capra’s insight brought about a problem that I have been thinking about for years. It is based on my fiction writing and my relationship with the reader.


The Tao of Physics is a creative correlation between eastern philosophy and subatomic physics published in 1975 and reissued in the 1980’s. He has some fascinating insight into the connections and the problems that philosophy and physics share. He went on to write a book called The Web of Life based on system thinking of environments, species, and humans. Most of the Tao of Physics is based on the ambiguity of language and symbols in writing and math. He defines the world of symbols and expression as an approximate map or reality. 
“Since words are always an abstraction, approximate maps of reality, the verbal interpretations of a scientific experiment or of a mystical insight are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete”(Capra 41). 
 
What does that mean in physics? Well “we know a square has four side with each corner turned at a 90-degree angle from another. Simple geometry can help us draw a simple picture. Now “go to a globe and draw a square onto the round ball. Pull the page off the globe and lay it flat, the square doesn’t have its 90 degree corners any more. The box is altered. What that means is that maps are not exact because they are all based on the curve of the earth. Look at the top or bottom of a map and see how the Arctic and Antarctic looks like vast continents, but it’s a distortion of putting a round ball on a flat surface. The representation changes when it is produced flat.
 
So, that is the concept of the “approximate map of reality” that even in science things are always what they seem. That isn’t to undermine science, it just shows that we have to use a variety of ways to explain science with the tools we have. If we look at symbolic language and expression, we never have exact, measurable data, but certain understanding and correlation to thoughts, ideas and mental images. No one sees “the elm tree” the same way, we all have context to our lives, reading, thoughts, and experiences.
 
As a younger writer, I always assumed that my writing would be envisioned and captured in the mind of the reader just like I see it in my mind. But as I think about the approximate map and the act of creativity, I was wrong. We are sharing an approximate experience between writer and reader that may only be loosely connected to my vision of the art. Of course we know this as interpretation and understanding of abstract words into images.
 
This “approximate map of reality” is what we work in as a medium for creative expression. It starts at a micro-level and moves up the entire chain of creative writing. Words are the building blocks of what we do, however, every person has different mental images for different words. That is the first level of approximation. Yes, we all have a universal understanding of what a “tree” represents, but everyone pulls up their experience with the word “tree” when they see it. This concept of “approximate maps of reality” is why I don’t watch movies that come from my favorite books. Why would I alter and change my images and mental correlations to the characters, plot and themes by having someone else push in on my creativity? It is always a disappointment. It is like layering two or three maps over one another until it gets really hard to see what made this work so important to us.
We can not give a reader an exact copy of our imaginary world because as soon as it is read by someone else, we have shifted from the perfect geometrical square to an “approximate map of reality” in words and expression. But, this shouldn’t be discouraging to a writer. It is inspiring. I have always wanted readers to see the same images I see when they read my work; however, lately I feel that the “approximate map” is a connection where readers can now tell me what they see. Themes, plot and character development works better when each reader can connect to different elements of their lives. There is no perfect, there merely an artistic rendering of words that has meaning to people. 
 
Seeing this idea was letting go in editing and crafting words. You won’t find the perfect word, just be concise and meaningful. At some point, in those lines of writing, people have to read them and make their own connections. Over the years, I needed to let go of the controlling idea that the reader must see what I see. Why? Because maybe they see clearly something new, something insightful, collaborative. Our language is too ambiguous, and our craft is too porous for that. What comes from the “Approximate Map” is an understanding of the human condition, the world and the exploration of universal truth. We are not drawing clear and distinct lines on paper, we are casting direction to our approximate maps giving the reader illumination to explore our expressions and sail constantly towards the equator of our creative soul.

Isolation and the Writer – A Social Distance Essay


If you think of yourself as a writer, you probably think that this time of pandemics and quarantine is just the thing you need to start that novel or maybe finish. Writers are moving into a period of unprecedented history. Writers know the value of their time and the space they need to write. The rest of the world – is anxious. 

Socializing and being connected to people is a part of our jobs, our friend groups, and family. As people begin to rethink their lives around this outbreak of flu, social distancing and selecting to live a quiet, remote life for a few week (forced or not), will be a difficult proposition for the people around you. In our culture, we have used isolation as punishment. Leaving people out or creating a cancel culture is considered terrible social terms to live in. People who violate the terms of Twitter are put in Twitter jail or facebook prison for a period of time. This is all social isolation. We don’t value sitting and reading a book for three hours (because no one really has the time anymore). In the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency, Akikko Busch so aptly discusses visibility and invisibility in the world. It is a brilliant discussion of why being invisible is just as important and relevant as being visible digitally and physically.  “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” This visibility that makes us public isn’t just a physical space, but a technological presence of posting our food pictures, sharing social gatherings, and posts about travel. But that is changing and writers are good ambassadors to help people understand the value of reading a book that will change their perspective, share the value of working on something (anything) uninterrupted for a long time. 


Fiction, poetry, and storytelling are fostering an understanding of imaginary inter-relationships in our imagination. We know that we can be deeply moved and changed by watching a good movie or reading a book we really are excited about. Sometimes, those stories are meant to change us, and sometimes they do it slowly, without an immediate impact. Busch talks about the value of imaginative conversations, ways we talk to ourselves as a way to practice speaking at an interview, discussing relationships, or just trying out a new idea. “We can have simulated discussions with real people who are not in the room. We can be deeply effected by fiction we’ve read. Something that is not real can have a real impact and foster a real emotion reaction.” In terms of your imagination and your ability to think and interact – these isolated practice sessions are just as important to your brain and your ability to see the world. 

Writer may feel better about thinking in terms of life as an invisible playground. They may even have a massive set of skills for this kind of interaction. Writers can manipulate and change scenes and find the moment things are relevant, important, and new. They can practice (in their minds) scene that change over and over again until they find the optimal vision that will draw out emotion and change the way people see the world. Do you have that power? I do, and I use it ALL the time. Anyone who says they have their best ideas in the shower are practicing this power in the known isolation of the shower.  

Maybe it is trite to pull out book like Love in the Time of Cholera, or Albert Camus The Plague, but it is also assuring to find writers moving through these ordeals, (real or imagined) and finding out something universal about solitude, isolation, and the human condition. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, she experience the Spanish Flu and the result is a significant shift in the world as she knows it. It is stunning, beautiful, sad, and perhaps one of the most moving statement of shifting from innocence to experience in literature. 

As writers, we may secretly relish this time of sequestering ourselves, more time writing, more time dreaming. It isn’t the writers of the world I am worried about, it is all those who have yet to discover how enriching it can be to settle, to focus, and to create. We have to continue the process of introducing friends and family into deep reading, critical thinking, field walks, beach explorations and all the magical ways we find inspiration through solitude. From our worries and our vision of the world – will come great stories, great vision, and a sense that we are all capable of great things even in solitude and with some social distance. 


Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.

Let’s Talk: putting your dialogue to work

My characters are just place holders in my writing until they actually open their mouths and speak. Then they come to life. That is why dialogue should be doing some heavy lifting in your novels. Dialogue is the best action that can be given to a character. Their ability to speak can bring to life a sense of who they are, what they are saying, and why they are saying it. But it doesn’t take a lot of telling to make that happen. Dialogue reveals once you start writing it. And when you begin to really develop good dialogue, it can change the way you see the writing.


There is a lot of focus on writing convincing main characters that may live on through a series. And while we spend time with the characters, what they look like and how they function, eventually, they will need to speak. But creating a character is far from using a D&D profile sheet and creating whatever makes sense in the moment. Characters often develop with the writing process, and they sometimes bend the story to their emerging will. Their conflict and desire (as Janet Burroway clearly defines it), can shift and create opportunities in the story that will change the fundamental scope of how you see the story and a characters role in it. It doesn’t until they speak.


Dialogue isn’t just about talking and making conversations, it is about action and this is probably the most important use of dialogue in a novel. In the book Writing Fiction: a guide to narrative craft by Janet Burroway, she discusses the concept of dialogue as action. She explains, “Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated thought. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logical to emotion”(45). Dialogue should be working for you on multiple levels. It can reveal a characters manner or impulse, it can reveal their needs and desires, it can show their apprehension to talk at all. But the most important element that dialogue can do is create action. “Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If in doubt, ask yourself: Can this conversation between characters really change anything?” This is where you can weaponize your dialogue from chatter to action and make it feel like when the characters speak, something is coming. That intensity and foreshadow is where the characters move from chatter to important and meaningful advances in the telling of the story.

It is important to value planning and vision when it comes to your writing, but I don’t think there is enough value placed in the flexible act of writing itself. Some pragmatist just rolled their eyes. Writers should listen to the characters speak. Shifts and changes in what they say and do are important to creating credibility, vision, and putting the reader into a state of active listening. This will lead to important dialogue and action points along well crafted interactions with characters.

Controlling dialogue and the way characters speak is important to understand the character, but it is also an opportunity to affect the story. In writing a story about a mother-in law, I wrote about her coming to the house staying with her children. It wasn’t until she finally got to a story about her husband that story broke open and began moving. As a writer, there is no better revelation than writing dialogue that shifts everything into place. Sometimes dialogue is meant to give the reader what is expected, i.e. this is the part where she is going to tell him she loves him. But sometimes, just a turn of phrase or an unexpected line will ignite action and story. Often is can’t be planned. It has to be developed through the story process and the developing understanding you have between your characters.


In the television show Atlanta (FX), Darius is by far the character who tosses off dialogue that challenges the other dynamics. Every time he says something, it changes the balance of things. Writing unexpected dialog isn’t just about opportunity or humor, but it is giving the reader something to think on, something to watch for. Don’t get me wrong, plotting and allowing for the audience to understand and predict some of the plot is valuable in buying in for reader. But sometimes, it is the dialogue that sets something into motion that a reader didn’t see coming.


Technical elements of dialogue are skills we develop and copy. How dialogue looks and work is important. But what is more important is getting the exchange down. Sometimes, it is better to forget all the formatting and write out dialogue like a play that is simple and concise. Then you can add format back into the traditional narrative that you are creating. When two people are speaking, the tags with names and attribution should be minimal. It get complicated when more people are involved. Practice and look for examples in book you admire. I prefer indenting dialogue when shifting speakers, but some writers prefer to embed their narrative into longer paragraphs. That is a matter of preference and vision for the sake of the writer. Lastly, I think it is important to discuss the outliers in dialogue. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes and other standard formatting elements, but the reader can understand the conversation once the reader understands the system has changed. Faulkner and others have mastered dialects but that can be tricky, forced, and offensive. Sometimes, it is best to suggest and then leave it alone. I also think in historical context, simplified or neutral language is better. Using contraction in the 1700’s just doesn’t sound right. Historical fiction is about being neutral with language. And if you aren’t sure what the voices should sounds like, look to the masters to see how they handled the speaking voices of history.


There is so much to think about as you begin your first draft, and like actors it isn’t a bad idea to get them talking early and try some scenes in your journal to see if they can open up a bit and share some of the dialogue created insights that can be captured when your characters start talking openly in your writing. It is often the defining moment between telling a story to the reader, and showing them something meaningful, important, and connective.

 

Fact and Philosophy in Novels

When Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, he begins with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a classic opening for this epic book. The next line is “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house.” What is the difference between these two sentences? One feels like a fact or a truth from the author, while the next sentence sounds like story. It is clear, Tolstoy is opening with this for a reason and it will be clear in a few more sentences. But he opens with an authorial fact, and then begins his story. There is a debate that Tolstoy was a master of omniscient point of view and did in fact weave his own visions of the world into the narrative. That being said, when we discuss the concept of truth and literary cognitivism, are we learning something attached to a story here or from the author. And does the opening line hold more weight if it isn’t woven into the story yet?

At the beginning of a novel we are playing with the edge of immersion and there, often, we don’t hear from the characters or the plot, but we hear something that holds us above all else. A fact, a concept, a philosophical idea hangs there, and then we are dropped into the novel. When you look at American Book Review 100 Best First Lines from Novels (other than Tolstoy) most writers drop you into something that looks like story or conflict. But what happens when we are told something that sounds like a fact or truth? Are we to assume that this is the voice of the author? Or someone else? Tolstoy, like all writers who start with a statement of fact or truth, quickly move into the stories to contextualize the fact that they are giving us. Do we see them as truth or do we see them as a set up for the next few pages (or the entire book). 

An authorial insertion is something that plays on the idea that we are definitively hearing from the author. It is an idea that sits outside of the story. Victor Hugo was famous for philosophically meandering between history and the stories he created. It gave context to history and his story. It requires a trust that the reader is willing to understand that philosophical element and continue to learn facts, and resolve the story that we are reading.  

In James Harold’s paper titled Literary Cognitivism, he suggests authoritative truth can be difficult. “When I read William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, I might come to know a handful of specific facts about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion; more importantly, I might learn how even acts of kindness can be cruel in context to slavery; and perhaps I can even come to know something about what the life of a slave might have been like in that era. Styron’s book is carefully researched and gets a great deal of history right, but he employs inventions and speculation as well. Without consulting historical sources, I cannot be sure what is invented and what is not. Or consider the claim that I have acquired knowledge about kindness in context to cruelty; this is not a historical claim, but perhaps an ethical one. And we might wonder whether, if we read literature in order to acquire knowledge, we are reading it as a work of literature. More worrisome still is the possibility that rather than increasing my stock of knowledge, this novel, written by a white author trying to imagine the mind of a black slave, may reduce or corrupt my understanding of American race slavery”(2). This article brings deep thinking into what we want to know in terms of facts and what we want to understand in the terms of art. And there is some significant questions if you are thinking in terms of reading literature as a finder of factual things. Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina is a philosophical statement that most agree with. It isn’t a fact to be proven — but to be thought about. 

It is through the novel that we acquire experiences and come to understand the world. But in the end, we can say that a novel gives us undisputed facts. But I still believe that we come closer to human truth as a philosophical reckoning in the novel than we do in other forms of art. We play the game of “imagine” so well, and play along the idea that this could happen to someone; and in turn we can imagine that it has happened to us all, every time we open the cover of a new book and begin a new story. 



Harold, James. Literary Cognitivism. Noël Carroll and John Gibson (eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Literature (forthcoming).

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here 

https://www.hollihock.org/single-post/2019/07/19/What-is-a-Writers-Journal

The Staff Shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

I am very excited to be a semifinalist for my novel The Staff in the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. The winner will be announced in late August of 2017. 

Del Sol PRess seeks to publish exceptional work by both new and recognized writers, as well as republish literary work that we consider extremely significant and that have done out of print. Their approach is eclectic, but with an emphasis on original, unique, and accessible work with an edge. 



My sincere thanks to the nominating editor(s) and all the writers in the list. It is an honor to be among them all. Check out their website here

HERMOSA by Marisa Clark
MALHEUR AUGUST by Nancy Minor
MALL by Pattie Palmer-Baker
MARILYN & THE NEW YORK ITCH by Pat Ryan
OUT LIKE A LION by Robin Martin
THE BEREAVED by Emma Schrider
THE PSYCHOPATH COMPANION by Claire Ortalda
THE STAFF by Ron Samul
STORIES YOU NEVER TOLD ME: AN IMMIGRANT
DAUGHTER’S JOURNEY by Catherine Kapphahn
THESE THINGS HAPPEN by Jane Sadusky
WRAPPED IN THE STARS by Elena Mikalsen


Between The Lines: Slaughterhouse Five Opening

Truth and fiction is a strange world. Writers are constantly invested in the vision of living many lives – some on paper while others are in real life. The complexity of writing fiction and understanding truth runs parallel to the idea that we can talk about truth and find its mirrored in fiction. In terms of writing, true stories and real accounts have a value to the general readership. We see labels splashed across book covers and movie posters that profess that they are based on a true story. And yet, the layers of fact to fiction can be complex and run deep into the story. 


Does it matter? Does fiction have to hold truth? Does a true story shift into fiction as soon as it is captured and told from different voices?  

It is important to write about these lines and ideas as they relate to both sides of the issue. It isn’t black and white, truth and fiction, but a combination of millions of possibilities and connections that make truth stranger than fiction. This series continues to discuss this concept. Sometimes, these entries will be brief notes and connections, while other articles will a bit more elaborate. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, we are faced with the kind of strange world that I want to continue to explore – perhaps for the rest of my life. I want to be the truth expert in fiction… whatever that means. 

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.” 

In looking at the way this opening reads, it is clear that fact and fiction are coming together. Most of the sentences in this section have disclaimers to the truth. “All this happened” is very declarative until it is disqualified with “more or less.” This builds the uncomfortable relationship that is being established. 

He moves on to the next idea, “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” Alluding to the idea that “pretty much” covers enough. As we move to the next sentence, we should acknowledge the emphasis on the words. “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.” This is a moment where you feel like the writer wants to look you in the eyes, look, this happened. Notice there are no names here. The next sentence continues this serious tone, “Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by a hired gunman after the war.” In these phrases, the narrator wants us to realize that there is truth, even fact in these words, but they can’t be verified. They can’t be questioned. You will have to take his word for it that they happened.

In the last two sentences, we have “And so on” as if we would just carry on with more of his stories. And then he forfeits it all by saying, “I’ve changed all the names.” The obscuring of the names isn’t at all a surprise, the narrator has teased out the balance between truth and fiction here, but to it does remind us – I will tell the truth by obscuring facts and leaving you merely with truth. Of course, this is merely an interpretation, but it does a back and fourth of reality that is being played one aginst the other. 

This work is considered semi-autobiographical which alone strikes at the heart of the matter. Half true, half something else. Part of what we are seeing here might be an answer for the mass destruction, the death, and the insanity of war. It can’t be shown to the reader without cloaking it in imagination, shifting the reality away from the reader, intentionally block the brunt of the evil so that the readers can begin somewhere. This novel was written twenty-five years out from his personal experience. Perhaps it is this distortion that helps define the balance between right and wrong.  – #


Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, reach out at http://www.ronsamul.org

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Writing and the Act of Immersion

Find my new article about the immersive act of writing at Harvesting Creativity.

Oddly, when I am scuba diving I think about writing. Long boat rides, open space, and the feeling of being insignificant on the vast ocean plays with the mind. Five or six miles out on the Block Island Sound, the ocean opens up. It is hard to see the shore, and with the typical New England fog, you may not see the shore for hours. Guys chat about their gear, exotic dive sites, and skills they have acquired. I listen and join in, but I think about writing. When we are gearing up to dive, we stop chatting and we get to diving. Gearing up for a dive includes settling into a mental process of checking and rechecking your gear and getting into the water. Click here to read the rest.

Fixing A Fatal Flaw / The Novel

by Ron Samul 
In this post, I would like to consider what writers should do if they realize that there is a considerable problem with their novel. It happens and sometimes, it can cripple the way you look at the novel or short story. At some point, it all went to crap and you have to either drop it in the wastebasket or deal with the issue. Writing a novel is hard work and it takes time and creativity to make it work. Part of what sets good writers apart from the rest is how they face adversity. Here are some things to consider. 


1) Can you identify the problem? 
This can be a challenge. Sometimes, the problem is complex or compounded by a few things. So, it is important to value your creative process, but it is also important to look for the flaws in your writing. Is it a character? Is it a plot twist? Is the location (setting)? Is it motivation? Conflict?

If you want to go with the gut check – go back to the pages where you were happy or felt like you had something special. Find the place where that feeling stops. And that is where you need to look. 

I remember writing about 90 pages and cutting all the way back to page 30 because I was just frustrated with the direction. I went back and tried it again. 

It also helps me to keep a writing journal – a log of my writing thoughts. It doesn’t have anything but the project. These entries help shape my next moves, my ideas, and connects my own motives for adding and subtracting things. This might be a good way to create low-stakes writing when you are stuck or looking for an issue. 

Sometimes, you just can’t define the problem. It is around this time that writing goes from the creative, inspiring art that you love, to the hard and sometimes oppressive work that you dread. Every novel has those moments of complete hopelessness. This is where lesser writers hang it up. This is where your talent, creativity, and your perseverance needs to master the art of writing. The craft starts when inspiration is gone. 

If you are stuck, then you need to find someone to help you find the problem. 

2) Have a core reading crew that you trust. 
If you can’t find an issue or where the story went south, then create a small group of readers who can look around for you. This is akin to working on a car for awhile and getting stuck. You invite a few buddies over and they look over the engine and sip a few beers. Then they say, you do have gas in the tank right? And that panic

cuts right through you. If you aren’t ready to show your work, then you have to find your own issues. But if you have a few reader that will take the time and give you good first impressions, they might be able to define some issues that will guide you back. 

Pick readers who are versatile. You don’t want readers who are the same. You want a good plot person, and a good character person, maybe a good line editor, and one crazy person who gets your view of the world. They all don’t have to read it, but pick the readers who might help the most. The hardest part: listening to their advice. 

When a reader takes some time to read pages for you — then listen. Don’t defend, don’t get bent out of shape about the feedback. It takes some practice but listen. More importantly, ask good questions. What did you think might happen after chapter one? How did you see the antagonist by the third chapter? Where did you disengage? 

Once you have the feedback, don’t make changes right away. Take the feedback. Sit on it for awhile, let it bake in your head. Reread their comments, think about what they said. Try to be objective and don’t take it personally. (Harder than you think, I know). Then start making shifts and adjustments. In the end, you don’t have to change anything, but if you know you have a problem and you are looking for a solution — change is coming anyway. Why not hear it from the most trusted readers you know. 

3) Read books like your book. 
This may not solve your problem, but it might inspire you to see how other writers deal with some of the issues you are working on. For example, if you are writing murder mysteries, you might seek out books like yours and see where you liked the moves that were made. Maybe you like the protagonist and you want to rebuild your character a bit more. 


I also read those silly MasterPlots books in the library. Basically, they are overviews of novels, plays, and short stories. I read them and listen to the simplicity of some of the great novels and stories. I look for the twist or the elements that are important. Similar to Occum’s Razor – often the simple and refined stories are the stories that make the most impact. By looking at them objectively in a reference book, you can see the refined simplicity and see if you can boil down your own ideas to one or two simple strands. 

You are writing a novel and you are stuck – this is where it gets good. You have skills, the ability, the support, and the internet to resolve your issues. Use the tools out there and keep writing. When you leave something for too long, it is hard to get back into it. Continue to think, write, and create even when you are stuck on something.  Don’t give up. Even if you can’t create new pages, work on research, find readers, or write in a writing journal to document what you are thinking. It is all important and it is all very serious. It should be very important for you to get on track again. Get to work and use the tools and abilities that you have worked so hard to acquire. 

— 2016 Ron Samul 

The Beginning of the End

The whole idea of writing a novel can be intimidating. Let’s face it, we all know that writing is work and writing a novel can be compared to building a skyscraper. It is a good idea to have some character sketches, outlines, plot ideas, and maybe some themes floating around in your brain before you start your novel. For me, it takes more than just a basic skeleton to begin writing. I never start writing a novel until I have an ending. I know, you might be saying – I don’t have a beginning, how am I going to come up with an ending? Don’t panic. Knowing the ending will help you develop convincing story and significant plot.

E. M. Forrester explains story as a linear tool or what happens next. The reader will then ask – what happens next? Plot is not based on time, but on characters. The reader will ask – why? The difference is time sequence verses character desires and motivations. Among the many constructs that an ending may provide for you in the beginning, these two elements are important. Yes, writing a novel is exploration. Yes, writing a novel will take a shell of a character and fill it up completely, so that they will actually begin to function outside your wishes and desires. And you should be listening intently. But, they can’t move blindly. We must make our characters move somewhere logically. That is why knowing your ending will strengthen story, plot and character motivation.
If you are writing historical fiction, memoirs, or non-fiction, you might have a series of factual events from research that dictates your plot and final scene selection. When I was writing the historical account of Harriet Quimby, the first woman pilot to gain her aviation license, I knew the ending – I just had to get there. When I wrote the second novel which was entirely fiction, like a vision, I saw the ending very clearly. Knowing exactly where I was going made the scenes and plot tangible, giving me room to think of some of the higher constructs of the novel, like theme, subplots and hidden conflicts. Let’s look at character, setting and writer comfort with this strategy of writing to a known ending in mind.
The importance of seeing that ending clearly gives your characters direct desire and motivation that relates to those final scenes. In fact, you may realize, as you write, that they have conflicting desires and motivations concerning the ending – but that is what makes clear and meaningful plot twists and good storytelling. It won’t happen automatically, but as you project an ending and move your characters to it – the novel will move toward a purpose. It is similar to imposing an unforeseen fate upon them. Be sure to develop your characters to fulfill the ending scene and see it through. In Moby Dick, Ahab is driven by his loss and revenge to face the white whale and we expect nothing less by the time we get there. Did we ever think that he wasn’t going to find the white whale? Of course not.
The next element that is set right by knowing the end of your novel is the structure of your setting. Knowing the end, you can begin to construct locations and significant detailing for this ending to play out on. If you are going to have a barn fire at the end of your novel – then you need a country side, a farm, and yes, a barn. By knowing this ahead of time – it helps you build these elements in as you write. Setting is more than just scenery in many great novels and writing. Knowing where and how you will get to the end will define the construction you will use. You have so much to do when you start a novel, explain characters, define time and setting, establish plot, have a decent voice, the right point-of-view – to name a few – that it is important to flush as many of these elements as possible and direct them to your established ending.
Defining a clear ending will help you mentally as a writer. Having a sense of the ending makes it clear in your mind where you are at any given time in your novel. If you are writing a normal novel of 300 pages and you get to page 100, you have completed a third of the novel. This is a time to check and make sure you are where you hoped to be when you wrote the first paragraph. This will keep you on track and give you some indicators as to your scope and time remaining. My first novel was a gluttonous 530 pages. It came from a lack of experience and an attempt to write two books when I only needed one. My second novel was a brilliant 252 pages and it was a perfect length. I knew the ending and went to it without changing course too often. Mentally, as a writer, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I must say that this method works for me. In the early stages of writing a novel-length project, I have a very difficult time writing outlines and character sketches because I feel that I don’t know my characters and motivations well enough. However, having an overall novel concept and an ending helps me define the answer to the questions I am about to put to my characters. That’s not to say that once you get to know your characters that you won’t modify the ending a bit; you probably will to keep your character’s motivations and desires in proper order.
If you can’t see the ending or a series of scenes that would conclude your novel project, then perhaps you’re not ready to write just yet. Once you write a novel, you will start to think, like any other writing form, about how to make another one. I do it by discovering great characters and defining where they are at the end of the novel (which includes people who are dead, alive, angry, confused, happy, miserable, satisfied or triumphant) and writing to that moment. If that final scene inspires you, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you feel alive: that’s when you’ve got it. You will write to it. Don’t forget, by the time you write your characters and story to the known end, it will be stronger, filled with emotion and meaning. You will know your characters and their desire, you will have defined a sequence and a strong plot. And that end, like fate, will draw your characters quickly along to the end, like it was meant to be. It always was.