Write What You Know? Really?

One of the oldest sayings about writing is “write what you know.”  Its originator is unknown.  Is this good advice, or bad?

This much is certain; it’s a lucky thing some great writers didn’t actually follow that advice.  For one thing, we never would have had any science fiction or fantasy, since no writer has gone through the experiences of characters in those sorts of stories.

Or have they?

In one sense, all characters encounter problems and experience emotional reactions to those problems, then seek to find a resolution to those problems.  All writers, all prospective writers, and even all people have done these things.  Maybe you haven’t battled menacing wyverns with a magic sword, but you’ve felt fear, had adrenalin rushes, struggled to overcome a difficulty, experienced a feeling like all is lost, grabbed for one last chance, and felt the triumphant glow of victory.  You’ve had the sensations your character will have.  Even though you’re writing about a heroic knight in some never-time of mystical wonder, you’re still—in one sense—writing what you know.

I suspect some long-ago teacher coined the maxim after first giving students a writing assignment and listening to a student complain about not knowing what to write.  The answer “write what you know” isn’t a bad one in that circumstance, since the students aren’t seeking wider publication, and writing about something familiar can free the student from worrying about research or getting facts wrong.

For a writer who is seeking publication, we’ll have to amend the adage.  Write what you know, so long as:

  • It’s not just a list of boring events from your real life;
  • You give us (your readers) an interesting plot and engaging characters;
  • Your descriptions grab us and insert us right into your setting, your story’s world; and
  • Your writing touches something inside us and helps us feel what your main characters feel.

So what you know may be that ugly incident at the school playground from third grade, but don’t give us the play-by-play of that.  Please.  Instead, use the feelings of that long-ago afternoon, but make the events happen in a different time and setting, with different characters.  If your setting is a far-flung planet and your characters are wearing space suits and packing blaster pistols, you might want to do some research to ensure plausibility.  But if you’re true to the emotions you felt on that playground, they’ll come through as genuine in your story and your readers will connect.

So, Beginning Writer, if you’re stuck and don’t know how to get started, try writing what you know, then edit it into what readers want to read.   Just some more free advice from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

In the Mood…

…for writing, I mean.  If you’re an author, how do you get in the best possible mood to write?

Face it, not every moment of the actual process of writing involves the seamless flow of ideas from brain down to fingers typing with frenzied speed on a keyboard.  There are moments (minutes, hours?) spent staring out the window, looking at a world that’s become far more interesting than the problem of figuring out what the next word should be.  At those times, you need a way to get unstuck.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the classic “writer’s block” where you can be stuck for long periods of time—months or years—and unable to get any creative ideas.  I’m talking about the lesser nephew of writer’s block—let’s call it writer’s clog—a temporary condition where your muse has already whispered the story’s basic idea and sketched out a rough plot.  She has since flitted off to Tonga, or wherever she flits to, and left you in charge of the actual writing part.  You’ve worked on the story for a few days, but all of a sudden words aren’t flowing.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” and I calculate that statement is eighty percent more true of writing.  So your writer’s clog problem is most likely a mental one.  Now, how are you going to stimulate your mind so it wants to write again?

The simplest way for me is to recall the thought process that led me to the story.  That usually conjures up pleasant memories of the initial enthusiasms, the high expectations of how good the story could be.  Back at that earlier time, my muse had just whispered the story idea and it sounded great.  At that moment, I knew the world needed to hear that story and I was excited about the notion of bringing it forth.

But let’s say that’s not working for you.  Consider using this interesting property of your mind—it can associate two things together (like putting two documents in the same file) just because they happened at the same time, no matter how unlike they are.  Let’s say the muse conveyed the story idea to you while you were in the shower, or mowing the lawn, or out for a walk.  Strangely, your mind now connects your story with that experience.  You might be able to regain your passion for the story, and relieve the writer’s clog, by recreating the experience.

Another method is to artificially create a mental association that’s easier to replicate later.  During the first day of writing the story, while the fervor is still there, the muse’s ideas fresh in your mind—you can make your own mental linkage by finding a picture that depicts something about your story (a scene or character) and staring at it.  You could burn some incense or put out some potpourri and stimulate a fragrant linkage.  Or you could play a CD where the music suggests something about the story, thus establishing an aural connection.

Now whenever you see that picture, smell that scent, or play that CD, you will think of your story and likely be in the mood to continue writing it.  Think of it as Writer’s Clog-Be-Gone (patent not exactly pending).

Do you think this technique might work for you?  Has it worked?   Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  It’s down there right below where I sign this entry as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

A Little Prompting

Would you like to write a story but don’t have any idea what to write about?  Perhaps you often find yourself having this problem.  Once you’re given some external spark, you can write like crazy; it’s just difficult in the beginning to figure out the idea for the story.

In February I mentioned I don’t usually suffer from this problem.  But there must be many who do, given the number of books and websites devoted to helping people solve it.  If you search for “writing prompts” you’ll see what I mean.

No, I won’t be giving you a list of prompts in this blog post, sorry.  My aims are to (1) give you some sources of prompts and (2) suggest some ways you can become self-prompting.  It’s akin to the “give a man a fish” adage.

When it comes to books, I recommend Story Starters by Dr. Lou Willett Stanek, which I had briefly mentioned in a May 15 blog.  Her book is full of brief suggestions, short little prompts you can use to build a story around.  Many of them can be used as the hook–the opening–for your story, after a little alteration.

One website with plenty of prompts is that of Kelly A. Harmon.  Not all of her posts contain prompts, but they are a frequent feature of her site.  And she’s giving them away for free!  The only price is this—if one of her prompts is just the spark you needed to write a story, then out of courtesy you ought to leave a comment thanking her!

Let’s see, I did promise to help you become self-prompting, didn’t I?  It may not be much help to tell you how I do it, but my method just might work for you.  I assign the entire problem to my muse.  (Yes, I know my “muse” is really just the creative side of me, and therefore I’m assigning the problem to myself.  Just go with me here…)  Prompting is my muse’s strength; writing is mine.  It’s just a matter of workload assignment according to aptitude.  What’s more, as long as that’s all I ask of my muse, so far she’s come through for me every time.

Right, that’s no help to you, I know.  Here’s something that might serve you better.  If you examine the common traits of the writing prompts provided by Dr. Stanek and Kelly Harmon, you’ll see the following:

  • They contain a touch of the ordinary. Something links the prompt to everyday life, or at least something within most people’s experience.  In my February 20 blog, I called this the “seed.”
  • They may contain a twist, something that alters the ordinary and makes it unusual, or even extraordinary.
  • They may be related to something visual, a picture or image.  Vision is our primary sense, and seeing something intriguing can be just the thing to spark a story idea.
  • They suggest a problem for someone, or a conflict that someone must resolve.  The conflict may be against someone else, against something in the environment, or against something inside that person.
  • They may involve, or at least suggest, a strong emotion of some kind.
  • They come from the world around us.   You can be prompted by something you actually experience, or by something you read online or in a magazine or newspaper or see on TV.

Those are the elements of a writing prompt. Now you know how Kelly comes up with hers, and how Dr. Stanek wrote a book full of them.  (Don’t tell them I gave away their secret!)  Now you might be able to come up with prompts all on your own.  You may even find, as I suspect, that the initial spark wasn’t your problem all along.  Your real problem is fleshing it out, actually writing an interesting story.

Ah, that would be a subject for another blog post, perhaps one yet to be written by…

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

Aiming for the Anthos

You’ve heard anthologies are a way to break into the writing business, but you’re not sure whether, or how, to submit?  Well, you’ve surfed to the right blog.  This is an area where Poseidon’s Scribe has some experience.  Seven of my stories are published in anthologies.

An anthology is a collection of stories, often sharing something in common and usually written by a variety of contributing writers.  Anthologies appeal to readers because they can sample the writing of unfamiliar authors and enjoy a smorgasbord of different styles.  Publishers like anthologies because readers like to pay for them, payment to authors tends to be low, and sometimes anthologies can sell very well.

Why do authors write for them?  For beginning writers, anthologies may just be the easiest way to get a story in print and to start establishing writing credentials.  Also, sometimes the theme is so compelling you just feel the urge to write that story!  An anthology can be the very thing you need to break out of a writing slump.

In a future blog post, I’ll discuss how to find out about upcoming anthologies.  For now, let’s assume you’ve just read a publisher’s call for stories to fill an anthology.  This one’s looking for tales that involve musk oxen, the theme of the anthology.  As you surf the publisher’s website you see they usually publish horror, and that’s not a genre that interests you.  So you ignore that call for stories and move on.

Then a day or two goes by and you find you can’t stop thinking about musk oxen.  Your brain keeps re-chewing the mental cud of numerous story lines.    Some of the ideas might even make good horror stories.  What’s going on?  Your muse is offering you a deal  If you can stampede away from your comfort zone, then your muse agrees to whisper a steady stream of musk oxen story ideas, scenes, plot lines, and characters.

So you sit down to write a story about a musk ox.  Of the various ideas roaming the fields of your mind, which one do you pick?  Here’s my view.  Don’t select the most obvious one, or two.  Other writers will have grazed those grasses already and that lessens the chance of the editor accepting your story.  I suggest aiming for the edge of the anthology’s theme.  Look for a different angle, a thematic twist that will make your story unique.  Ensure your story idea still fits within the anthology’s rules, but just within the border of those rules.  Also, consider if you could market your story elsewhere, should your story get rejected for this anthology.

You finish your story and now you’re checking the anthology’s rules one more time before submitting.  Here’s something you missed before.  “Payment for this anthology will be hardened, dried musk ox droppings (or monetary equivalent).”  What the–?  Payment for anthologies is often low.  Still, if you’re a beginning writer, payment is not the most important thing for you right now.  Exposure is; getting a story in print is; establishing a writing credential is.  Plus you never know when an anthology can really take off.

The scenario above happened to me.  When I saw the call for horror stories involving fish, I skipped right over it.  My muse didn’t.  She wouldn’t let go, even when I explained to her I don’t write horror stories and asked her who would buy such a book.  Are there really that many fishermen out there who enjoy horror stories?  Shows what I know about what appeals to the public!  Dead Bait by Severed Press, in which my story “Blood in the River” appears, remains the best-selling anthology of which I’m a part.  Who knew?

For you publishers, the idea of a musk ox anthology is free for the taking, and please don’t credit me with it!  For you writers, please understand I am not publishing an anthology. Do not send any musk ox stories to…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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

What’s the Use of a Muse?

Like some writers, and people who pursue other creative endeavors, I use the term ‘muse’ to mean an embodiment of the concept of one’s own creativity.  To the ancient Greeks it must have seemed a supernatural phenomenon when some individuals produced poetry, sculpture, and music out of nothing, as if some deity were whispering guidance in their ears.  The process can still mystify us today when we encounter a great creative work and wonder how a mere human could have made it.  No wonder the term ‘muse’ has survived even into our scientific, rational era.  

Some writers have imagined the physical characteristics of their muse, even named it, and go so far as to speak to it, appealing to it for that spark of insight only the muse can offer.  Stephen King described his own muse, I think it was in his book On Writing, as a grunting, cigar-smoking old man.  I imagine my muse in a more conventional way, as a young Grecian woman with flowing robes.  She stands only about seven inches high, but is able to hover near my ear when she wants.

Here I’ll pause to offer a free idea to all you web entrepreneurs out there.  If piano students can have their busts of Beethoven to serve as inspiration, why can’t someone manufacture small figurines of muses for writers and other artists?  I wouldn’t underestimate the power of physical symbols to stimulate the desired mental activity.  If such a figurine was not too expensive, I’d buy one!

Every writer asked to describe his or her muse’s behavior would certainly list at least two major characteristics.  One is a perverseness with respect to summons.  My muse appears at the time of her choosing, not mine.  Pleading, wishing, praying, even sacrificial animal offerings leave her unfazed.  (Okay, I haven’t tried that last idea very often.)  I could be all set and ready to write, my materials before me in a well-lit and quiet room, several hours at my disposal, and the cursed muse will remain hidden.  But let me be somewhere without a notepad—say, taking a shower or mowing the lawn—then the whispering starts and I can’t shut her up.  Some of the finest prose ever imagined has been whispered to me at such times—trust me on this—only to be forgotten for lack of a pen and paper, and to remain forever unwritten.

The other behavioral trait of my muse is easy boredom.  A half hour or hour at a stretch is the longest stream of inspiration the muse will bequeath.  Moreover, the very project she was so excited about just a few days ago has become passé, no longer worth her time or interest.  She’s moved on to some other idea and demands I write about that.  Should I ever start writing ‘formula fiction,’ such as romance, mystery, or series books can often be, I think my muse would quickly grow bored with the formula.  She specializes in the planting of seeds, not the toil of watering, tending, or harvesting.

My muse craves the new, the different, and the untried.  Once, I noticed a call for horror stories to be part of an anthology associated with fish or fishing.  I, the writer who hated horror stories, quickly clicked elsewhere.  Silly me, thinking I was in charge.  My muse was turning the idea over and over, and wouldn’t let go.  Mere rational logic would not sway her.  My insistence that I disliked horror, had never written it, or read much of it–all those arguments meant nothing.  The result was my story, “Blood in the River,” which appears in the anthology Dead Bait.  I never thought I would write a romance story or a fantasy either, until the muse suggested the ideas for “Within Victorian Mists” and “A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  Often I’ve carefully outlined the plot for a story only to have the muse guide me in a different direction.  On occasion I’ve created a character intended to be minor, but the muse has other ideas and brings that character into the foreground.

So you can’t beckon a muse and expect her to arrive, and once she’s close it’s never for long.  How can any writer deal with that?  How does one channel that fleeting, inspirational energy into something useful?  Ah, there are ways, but they shall have to remain the subject of a future blog post.  So stay tuned!  In the meantime, feel free to contact me with comments.  With the occasional assistance of my muse, I remain…

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

February 27, 2011Permalink

Why I Write

It would be better for you, the reader, if I could title this blog post, ‘Why You Should Write,’ since that would be more interesting and applicable to you.  However, it turns out I’m not as well informed about you as I am about me.  In hopes that one writer’s motivations may apply to someone else, I urge you to read on nonetheless.

The simple answer to why I write is that I cannot do otherwise.  The creative, story-telling impulse is too strong to resist; my muse screams too loudly when I don’t write.  In that manner, it is easier to write than to abstain.

All of that is true, but it wasn’t always so.  I didn’t always have a story to tell.  Even when I did, my doubts about writing outweighed my desire to do so.  Of doubts I had many.  How could I possibly write as well as the authors whose stories I read and loved?  How could I ever hope to convey ideas and provide entertainment in such a clever and skillful manner?  I understood that writing took time; could I spare that time?  I knew beginning writers got a lot of rejections; could I deal with them?

Further, I had not done well in English classes in school.  Enjoyed—yes; excelled—definitely not.  In college I majored in a branch of engineering.  Engineers are not known for their language skills.  An ability to write well is actually frowned upon, and could get you tossed out of the Engineers Guild.  (I’m kidding, of course–at least about there being a Guild).

So, despite a lack of writing skills, a lack of confidence in my English ability, and despite an inferiority complex when I compared myself to the world’s best authors, despite all those things, I still took up a pen and scribbled.  Why?

Looking back, I did have three things going for me.  First, I had a strong interest in reading fiction.  Loved it.  Devoured books, especially science fiction.  Second, I am creative by nature.  I delight in imaginative brainstorming, but not so much with other people, as brainstorming is normally done.  I seek to come up with solutions to problems that are unique and interesting to me.  Third, I’m one of those self-improvement nuts.  Phrased more positively, I was willing to spend the time trying to improve a new skill.  I’m willing to push on past minor failures along the way to achieving a goal.

These attributes didn’t pop up out of nowhere, of course.  I was influenced by my parents.  Much as Jules Verne gained a sense of precision and skill with words from his lawyer father, and a sense of romance and knowledge of human relationships from his mother, I too was a product of separate influences from my parents.  Thinking about it now, my own parents separately bequeathed me important attributes necessary to be a science fiction writer.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

In summation it appears that, for me, the impulses to become a writer overcame the opposing factors (the doubts, lack of skills, etc.).  After that, like any hobby, the snowball effect took over and the habit of writing became self-sustaining.  I found I enjoyed writing the more I practiced it and the more I learned about it.  My critique group helped hone my skills and provided an encouraging atmosphere.  Eventually, I felt confident enough to submit stories to the marketplace.  Lastly, getting stories accepted and published provided the most powerful incentive of all to write more.

That’s why I write, and if you’re wondering if you could take up writing as a hobby or vocation, perhaps some of the items I discussed apply to you too.  More likely, your reasons will be different.  Did this blog post trigger some thought of agreement or disagreement?  Write to me here and let me know.

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 13, 2011Permalink

Writing of seas and ships

What makes stories of the sea different from stories taking place in other settings?  Wikipedia has a nice, short entry touching on this question and I agree with its authors about the themes common to such stories and I won’t rehash those here.  By their very nature, sea stories create interest because the setting is different from most readers’ land-dominated lives.  People who have never been to sea are curious about what life is like out there.  Those who have been to sea enjoy relating to the experiences of the story’s characters.

The ocean makes for a paradoxical setting in that it is always in motion, but never really changing.  For the most part, the land just sits there, but the surface of the sea moves in a restless, rippling, chaos of crests and troughs.  The characters look out from their vessel and see a continuous display of nature’s power.  In general, this cannot be said about stories set on land or in outer space.  However, despite all this motion, water has a dull sameness to it.  Other than varieties of waves and some differences in water color, there’s little to distinguish one patch of ocean from another.  The sea shares this characteristic with outer space.  However, land provides a much wider variation in appearance, giving a descriptive writer more paints and textures for his word palette.  I think that’s why sea stories tend to skip over descriptions of the traveling part, compared to stories set on land.

I regard the ocean as a setting more illustrative of man’s creative powers.  We can stand up and move about on dry ground without any special assistance at all; we possessed from birth everything necessary to do that.  But the only way we can survive for long at sea, or travel through it, is through an act of creation—we must first build a vessel.  So stories based at sea must intrinsically involve a demonstration of our tool making skills and our exploratory urges.  The ship itself shows man’s genius and his desire to conquer nature, to test its limits.

I said I wouldn’t rehash the Wikipedia article, but I can’t resist emphasizing what it states its description—how stories set at sea possess a crucible aspect.  The characters have limited contact with the rest of humanity and must deal with each other in a confined vessel from which there is no easy exit.  They must confront their problems using their own personal attributes and whatever materials they have on hand, without the assistance of outsiders.  The reader can easily see their plight and focus on it.

Please don’t think I’m disparaging stories set in locales other than the sea.  I write and enjoy reading those tales too.  My purpose was only to explore what marks the sea story as different and unique.  Feel free to contact Poseidon’s Scribe with your comments!
Poseidon’s Scribe
January 16, 2011Permalink