Write What You Learn

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a dabbler. I have a lot of interests, and as time permits, I explore them. Singing, acting, science, random online classes, reading… A stopping point in the list is arbitrary. And I discovered something interesting. No matter how varied the list, I always end up finding things in everything I do that apply to my writing.

I don’t mean that the information ends up in my writing, though that also happens. I mean that  with many of  the techniques and skills I learn, I find some way to turn those techniques and skills into writing techniques and skills.

Write What You Learn

Background image: Katrina Br*?#*!@nd/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Acting, for example, has been particularly fruitful for character development. I’ve written several articles on how I’ve applied what I’ve learned in acting to writing (“Point of View: The Director’s Cut,” “See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters,” “Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques“). Even brief forays into graphic design have helped my writing skills–I am better able to write description using some of those principles (“Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details“), and keeping an eye on the big picture while paying attention to the smaller details (“Stepping Back“). I’ve used science for plotting, playing with the energy of the story the same way I would if I were approaching a physics problem (“Struggling With Plots“). And reading, well, that’s a pretty obvious one–I’m always looking at what other authors do that I should, or even shouldn’t, do as I write my own stories. Right now, I’m taking an online course in social psychology. About halfway through the course, I started brainstorming ways to use some of the stuff I was learning in my writing. Anything can be applied to your writing!

Think about all the things that you do that you can use to think about the way you write in a different way. One of the cornerstones of innovation is the accidental collision of seemingly unrelated ideas. In the process, something new forms. A new approach. A new vision. Crash ideas from a completely different area of your life into some of your writing.

Do you play an instrument?

Apply some musical thinking to your story. Does it have movements, like a symphony? How related are they? What are the recurring themes? Where does it crescendo? What key is it in?

Do you knit or crochet?

Apply pattern thinking. How do the different threads of your story intertwine? What color will they be? What’s the final pattern producing? How intricate are the knots and stitches you use?

Do you play soccer?

You’re aiming for the goal. Who’s in your way? What’s the offensive strategy? How do you get around the goalie? Is your kick blocked? Are your teammates helping? Is that the end of the game, or can you try for another goal? Who won?

Are you a photographer?

Frame the story. What do you focus on? What levels of lighting do you need to achieve the effect you want? Do you need a spotlight? Where are the shadows? The close-ups? The panoramic views?

Are you addicted to cooking or baking?

Gather your fresh ingredients. How will you mix them together? Do you need to break some eggs into it so the whole dish will stay together and not fall apart? Should you add sugar? Salt? Pepper? How long do you need to let the mixture cook before shoving a fork into it?

Are you a gardener?

Plant the seeds of your story at the start. Are your growing plants getting the water and sunlight they need? Or do they have to fight for it under the shade of larger plants? Is anything trying to force its way through a sidewalk? Have you weeded out the irrelevant ideas in your story so the ideas you are tending can grow?

I did say anything. I meant it.

Spend all your day making LOLCat images?

That pithy label shows you the way to the heart of your idea. What other odd juxtapositions can add humor to your story? Is your underlying picture a cute cat? An angry cat? What are you overlaying on that basic picture? How will it all work together? And is Comic Sans the right font to use, or should you use Impact Bold to get the shape of your idea across?

I iz gud writr!

Just about anything you do, anything you learn, will have lessons that you can apply to your writing. You just have to look for them. Use all your tools, no matter what toolbox they originally came from.

Write what you learn, and with what you learn. No matter what you learn.

Final Poll Results

Stage and Scene:
Finding Writing Tips
in Acting Techniques

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve had the good fortune to take several acting classes from the Piven Theatre Workshop. While the classes are are fun and interesting in themselves, I find they also have offered me insight into writing well-constructed and interesting scenes. Here are some of the techniques I’ve learned that apply to writing as well as to acting.

Keep Passing the Energy

A significant part of the Piven technique centers on theater games. Many of these games focus on keeping the energy in the room high, by passing it from person to person, trying to grow it with each pass.

Written scenes also need to keep passing the energy, or they start to feel flat. Have characters in a scene pass the energy between each other as they interact. This will keep the scene immediate and draw in the reader more than just dumping the energy into a single character until it fades, taking the reader’s interest with it. If a scene with multiple characters isn’t working, see if one of the characters is dropping the energy instead of passing it. For instance, if two characters are having a fight, keep the anger flowing between them somehow. An easy way to do this is to alternate the action and dialogue between the two. As they argue back and forth, let the energy grow. Escalate the verbal and physical actions in response to this growing energy. Don’t make the fight so one-sided that one of the participants might as well be out of the scene.

You can also pass energy from action to tension and back again. There is usually a natural point at which the impulse of the action changes. Let the shift grow organically from what is happening in the story. Don’t drop energy if the action slows. Instead, shift the energy into internal tension rather than external action. This is another way to keep the energy flowing and keep the reader engaged in the story. Consider our arguing couple. Perhaps one of the participants is yelling, and the other is sitting there not saying anything. That doesn’t mean they aren’t reacting. Think about how this situation might look on a stage. The person who is not responding could be fidgeting, deliberately hiding behind a newspaper, tapping a foot. Let your character do that sort of thing too, and grow the tension. An actor isn’t just standing frozen if he or she doesn’t have any lines. Even if there is little or no action, there is always some kind of interaction.

Interrupted Destination

When you are writing a scene with more than one character, you are probably focusing on just one of the characters in the scene. This is usually the scene’s point of view character or the main character of the story. This character has a set goal and encounters setbacks, and overcomes obstacles present by the other characters. But what about the secondary characters in the scene? Their goals and setbacks are not usually very well defined. How can you round out their actions?

One of the techniques I learned in scene study was the idea of interrupted destination. If you don’t have a clear action goal determined by the plot, find one. But make it one that is constantly interrupted by what is going on. For example, the scene may be one in which you are having an argument with another character. You set yourself a goal of putting on your coat and walking out the door. But each time you start to make progress with this, the argument gets in the way. You may only make it half-way to the closet, or end up with your arm through one sleeve, or, quite possibly, manage to open the door. It doesn’t matter that you don’t succeed—having the goal gives your character an immediacy that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have just standing there screaming at someone else.

The idea of interrupted destination can be used to add a lot of depth to your secondary characters. Think of each character as an individual actor in a play. Even if they only have bit parts, they need to do something other than just stand and speak lines. They don’t need to have a complex goal for the scene, but if each one has some action they want to achieve, and they are interrupted and interrupt each other, the scene will take on an amazing richness. Your secondary characters will also take on additional depth. You can also use the interrupted destination technique to give a major character a physical goal in a scene where the major goals are internal.

Staying in the Moment

When you have memorized lines that you recite multiple times, it becomes very easy to only act, and never react. You know someone is going to make you angry, so you act angry. You know someone will surprise you, so you act surprised. It’s easy to just say and behave the way you know you are supposed to rather than reacting to what is going on. Most people do this with conversations, too—rather than listening to what is being said, most people are thinking ahead to what they want to say. But if you allow your character to be in the moment, instead of anticipating what is ahead, suprising things can happen, and you can build a more genuine interaction.

This applies to writing as well. Your character needs to react as well as act. Your character needs to genuinely respond rather than always anticipating.

Good scene structure stays in the moment. A well-structured story alternates between doing and responding. Stories aren’t just a string of scenes. They are an alternating strings of scenes and sequels. The scene is the action, the sequel the reaction.

A good scene has the following structure:

  • Goal—What the main character wants to achieve.
  • Conflict—The obstacles the main character must overcome to reach the goal
  • Disaster—The character fails to reach the goal.

For example, the main character wants to avoid an argument by putting on her coat and leaving before her husband notices (goal). Her husband comes in, and asks where she is going (start of conflict). She doesn’t respond, and continues putting on her coat. Her husband starts to argue, then yell at her. Finally, he tells her if she leaves, she can’t come back (disaster).

Then the character reacts to the disaster in the sequel. The structure of the sequel is:

  • Reaction—This is what keeps things immediate. The character has an emotional reaction to the failure before taking further action.
  • Dilemma—The character faces some tough choices because of the failure. Have the character react genuinely to the situation, and work through the options.
  • Decision—None of the choices are ideal, but the character has to go with one of them anyway. Time to decide. And that leads the character to a new goal, and a new scene.

In the sequel to the argument scene, the wife is shocked (reaction). She has to decide if she will still leave, or stay and participate in the argument she is trying to avoid (dilemma). She finishes putting on her coat and walks out (decision).

Even on a smaller scale, the character still has to react to what is going on. There is nothing more boring than a play where it feels like the actors are reciting their lines in a set way, regardless of what other actors are doing. Shake up things for your characters so they can’t anticipate ahead of the action. Keep your characters in the moment. Foist an external event on your characters and see how they react first. Then have them act on that reaction.

The “What’s Between”

Another scene study concept that is useful to look at from a writing perspective is something called the “what’s between.” This is, in essence, an actor’s version of “show, don’t tell.” The idea is to act the scene with a hidden tension in it. There’s some secret the actors know that they aren’t sharing, and it comes out in the tension of the interaction. Think about the hidden things in your story whenever two characters interact, and see how you can use them to add tension and energy. For example, suppose you have a father meeting a son for the first time. The mother has agreed to this meeting on the condition the father does not reveal the truth. In what ways would the father act differently under these conditions than he might otherwise? In what ways does the strain of the secrecy come out in the dialogue? In the father’s actions? What tension does the son pick up on? What tension does he miss entirely? Thinking in this way, exploring the “what’s between” in your story and how you can use it to build tension and character, will add that extra dimension and depth to your scenes.

There’s a lot to be learned by studying good actors and good acting techniques. Next time you watch your favorite TV show or movie, see if you can pick up other ideas for enriching your writing.

Final Poll Results

Starting Will Always Be Hard:
What Running Taught Me About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In April 2002 I started running again after a long hiatus. This summer, I ran in three 5K “races.” I didn’t set any records, finish first, or even win my age group. But it was an accomplishment that I’m proud of nonetheless.

Now, I’m sure that there are more than a few people who upon reading that first paragraph thought, “That’s it?” Yup, that’s it. You see, the idea of entering an event before I knew I could run the entire distance without walking was as much of an anathema to me as the idea of soliciting agents with a half-finished first draft of a novel. I wouldn’t do it. It’s just not the way I operate.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never do things quickly. I’m a slow runner—it takes me 30 minutes to run 5K, about twice as long as the fastest runners—and I’m a slow writer. I will never churn out three novels a year. Angst and perfectionism are real speed bumps. But that’s okay. It may even be better than okay. When I get discouraged at my pace, I like to remind myself that the tortoise won.

The point is, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Other people’s ways of getting to the finish line may appear more efficient, but you’re always going to be slamming up against roadblocks if you try to emulate a way of being that you’re uncomfortable with. Stumble often enough, and you’ll probably quit. It’s human nature.

Consider this: the prevailing philosophy amongst the running crowd is that beginners will quit unless they join a group, that it’s impossible to start running and keep it up on your own. Notice I didn’t say difficult, I said impossible. Lots of people really believe that. Lots of people would be wrong.

Like the idea of running with a big sweaty talky group of people who are probably all faster than you? I didn’t. It made me cringe. You just know that someone would be designated to hang back and “cheer” you on because if you’re at the back of the pack that automatically means you’re having difficulty, right? Well, no. Sometimes it just means you’re slow. And then there was the fact that most of these groups seemed to meet at 8am Sunday mornings. Um, no.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of socially ingrained notions about what “good” behavior is. Everyone’s heard tales of people who get up at 5am to write or work out. What dedication! Getting up early is touted as the sign of productivity. Staying up late? Well, that’s merely decadent. Not to mention, you must be procrastinating if you’re leaving something to the end of the day.

Well, I won’t deny that I procrastinate. I do. But that’s beside the point. The point is: Don’t try to be a morning person if you’re not. No, really, don’t. This is huge. If I had tried to be an early morning runner, I doubt I’d have made it a week. I’m stiff in the morning and I need at least one cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. Instead, I usually run in the early evening, before supper. At that time of day, I look forward to it. This is key. The same principle applies to writing. Schedule your writing time so it’s something you look forward to, not dread. You know when you’ll be most productive. Don’t fight it; work with it. Setting the alarm an hour early just so you can hit the snooze button six times isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Now running, being what it is, is subject to the weather. There are always going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the summer that means it’s too hot; any other time of year that means it’s too wet. This is the West Coast, after all. And there are days when I think, “Bleh, I don’t want to go out in that.” But you know, shit happens. Deal with it. Running when the weather is inclement is what differentiates a real runner from a dabbler. So it’s hot or wet. Go anyway. Of course there are limits. It would be stupid to run in lightning or extreme heat. Similarly, if you’re sick or injured, it’s okay to take time off. The important thing is that if you do have to break an appointment—for a valid reason, not a mere excuse—you have a plan in place for getting back on track.

Just as a real runner runs in any weather, a real writer writes even when uninspired. If you’ve made an appointment to write, keep your appointment. Maybe all you’ll write is crap that day, but so what? Everyone has bad days. At the same time, if you do miss an appointment, let it go. Don’t dwell on your “failure”; concentrate on making the next one. Developing a routine is great, but even more important is being able recover from an interruption to that routine.

I mentioned dabbling. Before I restarted running, I tried cycling and swimming and yoga and hiking and well, you get the picture. Before I restarted writing, I did much the same thing only with photography and graphic design and such. These things were fun; I enjoyed them; some I was even quite good at. But the problem with trying keep up a multiplicity of activities even when they’re fun and you’re good at them is that ultimately they’re all unsatisfying because you never feel like you’re getting anywhere.

However, sometimes it’s precisely that dissatisfaction that’s the kick in the butt you need to quash your inner dabbler and make a decision. What’s your passion? What do you really want to do? Focusing means putting some of your other activities on the backburner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do anything else. Cross-training is great; it keeps you from being bored, it exercises different muscles. But cross-training is different from dabbling. With cross-training the other activities support your vocation; they don’t overwhelm it.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to focus on, keep it simple. When I started running, I wore an old pair of shoes, old T-shirt, old shorts. I did not dash out and purchase an entire wardrobe of hi-tech running clothes before I’d lifted a foot. There’s nothing more dorky that the person who’s all kitted out but completely inept. You can start writing with a nothing but a pen and a piece of looseleaf. Or type, if you prefer, but don’t worry about special software; Notepad works just as well as anything to start.

And just as a beginning runner should concentrate on breathing, gait, and pace, not looking pretty, a beginning writer should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and spelling and tell stories in a standard, straightforward format, not waste energy developing her “style.” Once you’ve mastered the basics and proved your commitment, you can add to your wardrobe—or your style repertoire—as necessary.

One mistake that beginners (at anything) almost always make is to set goals that are too lofty. Start small. Set realistic goals, that is, ones you know you can meet. Otherwise, you’re just sabotaging yourself.

When I started running my first goal was to run one minute, walk one minute five times. Doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I could do it. And because I’d planned to run-walk, walking wasn’t a failure; it was part of the plan. Once that was easy, I set a new goal, and so on. I also made it a rule that if I ran one day, I got the next day off.

Which brings me to: schedule breaks. I knew if my initial goal was “run 5 minutes,” I could probably do it, but I’d be exhausted and flopping all over the place by the end. By running in intervals, I maintained my form throughout and I felt a lot better about my performance than I would have if I’d pushed straight through.

If you’ve set aside one morning a week to write, instead of planning to plant yourself in the chair for the entire three hours, plan to take regular breaks, say write for 15 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes. But I’m on a roll! That’s great. Stop anyway. When your break is up, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to write next and you’ll be eager to get back to it.

And speaking of goals: Don’t rely solely on external gratification. Set goals you have personal control over. As a runner, I set goals to run a particular time or distance, not to finish in a particular place. Placing is completely dependent on how others do—you don’t have control over it. That’s not to say it isn’t nice to finish in the top whatever, but take that as gravy, don’t make it your goal. Like I said, my goal in my first event was to run the entire distance. I did, and that’s a big deal considering two years ago running one minute was arduous. Sure it took me a while to get there. But I did, because I set achievable goals along the way.

Achievable goals: Write for 1 hour on Saturdays. Finish this short story by the end of the month. Enter 3 contests this year. Query 20 agents about my novel. On the other hand, “Get my novel published” is not. I mean, yes, of course that’s what you ultimately want, but unless you have a lot of clout, you can’t make someone publish you, and if you’ve set that as your goal, when you’re rejected (over and over) you’re just going to end up frustrated. Whereas if your goal was to send the queries, you can think more along the lines of, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”

What is next? Well, like my running events, your first brush with publishing is likely to be something small: a story in an ezine, an article in a newspaper. And I’ve noticed that people have a terrible tendency to downplay these accomplishments: “just a little magazine” “just paid in copies” etc. But yeesh, how do you think most writers started? Getting a big advance for one’s first novel with no previous credits as unlikely as picking a marathon as your first event and running it in under three hours. You need the “little” credits. They’re perfectly legitimate and they’re important. Don’t damn them with “justs.”

When I ran in my first event, I ended up right in the middle of the pack. The middle! I’m sure no one has ever been happier to find out she was average. Of course, with running, average exceeded my expectations; with writing, I expect more, but the truth is, whatever the game, most of us are somewhere in the middle—maybe a little above, maybe a little below. That doesn’t mean we should give up. You can be successful without coming in first, without being the best writer ever, without writing the Great [insert country here] Novel. It’s okay to simply be good at something. The current media trend to label everyone who doesn’t finish first a “loser” is ridiculous.

If it matters to you, do it, even if no one else cares or they think you’re silly to keep at something that seems so hard. Running is hard. Writing is hard. But that’s why they’re so rewarding. If they came easily they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Probably the most important thing that running has taught me is that no matter how long you’ve done something and how much you love it, starting will always be hard. Start anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never get to experience that moment when everything clicks and you’re sailing: your feet are flying across the pavement or your fingers are smoking over the keyboard. And afterward, when you’re done? Well, that feeling is sheer euphoria.

Final Poll Results