Writing in the Flow

You know the feeling.  Maybe you were playing a sport or a musical instrument; maybe you experienced it at work or in church.  I’m talking about that experience of being in the zone, in the moment.  Runners call it the “second wind.”  Everything’s going well and you’re super-productive, almost flawless, and you’ve lost complete track of time.  How cool, how sweet, is that?

When writers experience it, words come out without effort; there’s a lack of awareness of surroundings and the passage of time; and the prose is better. It’s as if writer and muse are one.  If you’re like me and writing is a part-time hobby, then the precious time available for it needs to be maximized somehow.  It’s desirable to spend as much time in the zone as possible.

According to this Wikipedia article, the psychological term is “flow.”  It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and there are ten associated factors (though not all are required):

  1. Clear goals
  2. Concentrating within a limited field of attention
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge
  7. A sense of personal control over the activity
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself

So how can a writer intentionally bring about this state of mind?  For me, preparation is the key.  I find I can make the flow more likely if (1) I’ve prepared a story outline so I know the general direction I’m heading, and (2) I’ve previously thought about the story during “down time.”  Down time is when I’m doing an activity that doesn’t involve intense concentration, an activity such as commuting to or from work, mowing the lawn, and taking a shower.  It’s during these periods when I think about the scenes, characters, dialogue, and plot.  If I’ve done that, my mind is ready to write when I have time available.  I’m much more likely to get in the flow.

You might be different.  Some writers can induce the flow by playing music, by writing in the same spot and at the same time each day, or even by burning incense or setting out potpourri.

Unfortunately, it’s hit-or-miss getting into the flow, and very easy to get kicked out of it.  One way to get kicked out is to decide, as you’re writing, that you need to do some research.  This is a tempting urge, and can be more enjoyable than writing.  Sadly, it is a huge time sink, and there’s really no need to have it spoil your flow.  In my January 30 blog entry, I suggested something I called “bracket research.”  Just take the question you want to investigate and put it in brackets, or highlight the text yellow, or do something to distinguish it. You can stay in the flow and keep going, then do the research later.

Another dangerous practice that will kick you of the flow is to pause and self-edit too much.  You can do that later.  For now, just let words flow.  I don’t know a really good cure for that, but I suspect participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is one way to cure yourself of that urge.

I hope you can experience and maximize the flow in all your favorite activities.  Good luck!  I suppose I should know something about flow; after all, I’m–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Metaphors Are Icing; Similes Are Like Spice

Looking back over some of my blog entries, I see I sometimes sound like quite the expert, a know-it-all who has decided to bestow some of his vast expertise on new writers.  I should make it clear my expertise is really not vast—it’s half vast.

On the subject of metaphors and similes, I have to say I’m not even a novice yet.  I have to force myself to use more of them in my stories.  So this blog entry is written as a set of reminders for me.  You’re welcome to read along if you like.

First of all, Steve, metaphors and similes are very much alike; they’re both methods of comparing one thing to another, it’s just that similes signal their presence with the words “like” or “as.”  Those words announce to the reader a comparison is coming.  Metaphors can sneak up on a reader such that he or she doesn’t realize the comparison has happened until after reading it.  Similes lack that stealth.

Remember, Steve, that readers, nearly all of them being human, possess brains naturally equipped to recognize patterns–the similarities between two things.  They store their memories in interesting places within the brain but always near other analogous things.  Consider the concept of “soft.”  Just thinking about soft conjures up images of feather beds, pillows, baby’s cheeks, puffy dandelions, etc.  All those images and more are stored within the brain, filed with the word “soft.”

So when you’re writing a story, Steve, and you want to describe how soft something is, you can compare it to something else filed under that heading.  Chances are readers will share the same mental picture you’ve conveyed, thus saving, as the saying goes, a thousand words.

It can work as well with concepts less concrete than “soft.”  A person can be described as being “as loving as…” or “as loyal as…” where you can compare these qualities to the standards in your mind filed under those headings.

Two common pitfalls to avoid, Steve, are clichés and mixed metaphors.  Clichés indicate the writer’s laziness, and often fail to convey the image intended due to overuse.  Mixed metaphors are at best jarring to the reader, and at worst, funny (and the reader’s not laughing with you), like the ones listed on this site.

There are some great writers you can learn from, Steve, about similes and metaphors.  There are sites out there like this one where you can read through some of the classic similes.  Be on the lookout for clever comparisons in all the books you read.  Take a moment to analyze each one and figure out why it works—why the author chose those words.  Poetry is often teeming with metaphors due to the compact nature of the medium and the need for each word to pull more of a load than is required in prose.

Steve, you’ve got to strive to use metaphors and similes more in your writing.  They help the reader picture your scenes and characters better.  Metaphors are icing; similes are like spice.  You must make better use of them if you wish to continue being known as–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Reading Your Way to Better Writing

What book should you read that will make you a published author?  Surely someone has written down all the little secrets in a handy volume, right?  I mean, that’s how I learned to do some household plumbing.

In earlier blog posts I’ve stated that the how-to books about writing do have some value.  You can read them to learn or re-learn a few tidbits, but do not expect that reading a book will make you a great writer.  I’ve stated that I put more stock in critique groups.

Even so, I have read a few books intended to help writers.  The following list of books I’ve read is in no particular order.  I recommend them all, but read them for the occasional “golden nugget,” not because they will make you famous.

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • How I Write:  Secrets of a Bestselling Author by Janet Evanovich
  • Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
  • Your Mythic Journey:  Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox
  • Manuscript Submission by Scott Edelstein
  • The No-Experience Necessary Writer’s Course by Scott Edelstein
  • Story Starters by Lou Willett Stanek
  • The Elements of Storytelling:  How to Write Compelling Fiction by Peter Rubie
  • Creative Writing: Forms and Techniques by Lavonne Mueller and Jerry D. Reynolds
  • The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova
  • Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg

I will single out three more for special mention.  Zen in the Art of Writing:  Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury is one I read many years ago, but the essence of it still rings in my mind.  Bradbury conveys the passion for writing, how it grabs you and carries you along on a crazy ride.  You can enjoy your writing pastime, but you can’t control it.  A good book.

Consider reading Hooked:  Grab Readers at Page One by Les Edgerton.  That book will help you begin your stories the right way.  Edgerton’s book is new, with fresh insights about what works in modern stories and what the editors of today are looking for.

 

Lastly, and best of all, you must, must, must have The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.  That’s the formal book title, but everyone knows it as “Strunk and White.”  First published in 1918, this very short book will remind you to keep your writing succinct and to always make things easy for your reader.  You’ll want to re-read this one every few years.

If you’ve read a book on writing that you recommend, let me know.  For all I know, maybe someone has written a book with no-fail, sure-fire advice for making its readers into great writers.  Such a book, if it exists, has not yet been read by–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Passing the ‘So What?’ Test

Why should someone want to read what you write?  Say you’re a writer seeking to sell stories.  Obviously, you are pursuing readers, lots of them.  So how do you appeal to them?  What do they want to read?  Above all, you can’t have them asking “So what?” as they read through your story.

So let’s put ourselves in the mind of the reader.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as virtuous, unselfish, and caring.  But let’s face it, when we pick up a story to read, we’re set for a solely personal experience, a solo cruise.  Reading a story is not a chance to show the world our magnanimous side.  It’s just ourselves and the author’s work.  As readers, we have a choice of billions of stories to read and only a single lifetime, with several other things to do in it aside from reading.  So a reader wants a story that relates to her or his own life.

The writer G.K. Chesterton said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”  Please permit me to add my own ending to that quote—“A better novel tells us the truth about its reader.  The best novel tells us the truth about what the reader aspires to be.”  Or put another way, the closer your story’s point-of-view character matches the reader’s inner vision of herself or himself, the more appealing your story.

If we shift viewpoint now and look at the situation as a writer, we face a problem.  How are you supposed to know what all readers aspire to be?  How do you craft stories to appeal to so many unique inner desires of so many different people?  You won’t attract them all, but there are some common elements.

All of your readers are trying to struggle through life as best they can.  They all have conflicts and problems, bad relationships they wish were better, skills or character attributes they wish they had, dreams they wish they could fulfill, fears they wish they could overcome, past choices they wish they’d made differently, and hard future choices they hope they’ll make wisely.  Those universal experiences are what you must tap into.  Given their precious and limited reading time, readers are going to devote it to a story where the point-of-view character, or the protagonist, is experiencing the same things.  What keeps them reading is to find out how the problem might resolve—not for the character—but for their own inner selves in their real lives.

Throughout your story, you must keep that linkage in mind and keep reinforcing it.  Your story is about your reader’s inner thoughts.  The methods by which authors maintain that connection are through writing techniques such as describing a character’s thoughts and feelings, showing rather than telling, including all the senses, and ratcheting up suspense and increasing the level of conflict.

I may well address each of those in future blog entries.  In the meantime, as you write, pause from time to time and ask yourself if your reader would be wondering, “So what?”  That’s the question to be avoided, or I’m not…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Short Story Editing

Before I get to today’s topic, I should mention that I’ve shifted my website software and given the website a new layout.  Still a work in progress!

Sadly, writing isn’t just writing—it’s also re-writing.  Perhaps you have a mental image of yourself typing frantically long into the night, then at last typing ‘THE END,’ and attaching your short story to an e-mail and sending it to a short-story market.  That happens sometimes, but I suspect such stories are the easy rejects.

You don’t want to be rejected, so you’re not going to do that.  You’re going to look over your story in detail before you send it in.  You’re going to do some editing.

Ideally, you’ll take time to let the story sit for a time while you work on something else.  How long?  Best to give it a few weeks or even a couple of months.  The idea here is to give your ego some distance, to enable you to look at the story fresh, as your readers will, as if someone else wrote it.  You’ll view it with a more critical eye and find yourself reacting negatively to certain aspects, maybe asking “Huh?” or “So what?”

Take that first sentence, that first paragraph.  Will your readers be hooked, I mean really hooked?  As you read further, look for plot problems.  Does the action proceed in a logical manner, making the conflict more and more difficult for your main character?  Do you have tense scenes followed by more relaxing, reflective scenes?  Does every paragraph, every sentence, every word really support your plot?  Delete until that is true.  This is a short story; you don’t have the leisure to go off on tangents.

Consider the setting descriptions for each scene.  In each new scene, the reader likes to be oriented in that setting.  The reader wants to feel he or she is there, with the characters.  You’re looking to provide just enough detail, facts that trigger as many of the five senses as possible.  You can add an occasional new detail as the scene progresses, to remind the reader where the characters are, but the bulk of the description should be early in the scene.

Think about all of your characters, paying particular attention to the protagonist and other major characters.  Are they too stereotyped?  Give the stock character an interesting twist, but one that ties in to your plot or theme.  Do your characters behave and speak in a consistent manner throughout?  It’s okay to have a major character change behavior at the end (recommended, in fact) but the change must be explained by the story.  Look for “data dumps” in the story, where things are explained in narrative, or characters are just talking in dialogue to each other.  Fix that by giving the reader the point-of-view character’s reaction to new developments or significant statements by other characters.  Look for points in the story where you have significant actions without any reactions.

Next, look at your grammar.  Target weak verbs, passive sentences, adverbs, and clichés.  Check to see if your sentences vary in length.  Note I said “target” and “check.”  There are good reasons to keep some of these in your story, especially in dialogue, or in first person point of view narration.  However, you must be consistent, don’t over-use them, and ensure they enhance the story.  One trick with clichés is to give them a twist—take an old phrase and give it a new spin.  As for sentence length, try shorter sentences in fast-moving action scenes and longer sentences in the tension-releasing scenes.

One way to find grammar problems as well as plot, scene, and character problems is to read your story aloud.  I have no idea why this works but you will find yourself stumbling as you speak some words.  That’s a signal something’s amiss.  Your reader will stumble there too.

The last thing to do before sending in your story is to ensure you’ve followed the format specified by the market for which you’re aiming.  Someday we’ll live in a perfect word with a single standard for manuscript format, but we’re not there yet.  Editors will reject you for not following their instructions regarding mailing or e-mailing, attachments or text in e-mail, single or double line spacing, font sizes and types, one or two spaces between sentences, where and how to indicate page numbers, how to indicate italicized words, etc.  You want them to publish your story?  Follow their rules.

Once you’ve done all that, then you can hit send.  This all sounds difficult, but it gets to be a habit and becomes a little easier with time.  Here’s wishing you happy editing, from…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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