Learning from the Pros

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What would you say to your favorite author if you met her? I recently had the opportunity to meet the one author who has been most influential to my writing: Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold writes science fiction and fantasy novels. Her major series, the Vorkosigan books, follow her handicapped protagonist Miles Vorkosigan through his struggles against, well, himself, mostly. One of her later books in the series, Memory, is one of the most perfect books I have ever read. (A caveat: While all her books can be read as stand-alones, the emotional impact of Memory is far greater if you understand Miles’s history.)

Reading Bujold sparked a major desire to take up writing again. While her books provided numerous personal ‘aha!’ moments unrelated to writing, they and some of the comments she’s made about her writing process provided more than a few craft related ‘aha’ moments as well. I really wanted to corner her for an hour or so, and pump her about writing. When I had the opportunity to meet her at a very small, low key filk convention, I told the friend who arranged for her to be there that I would move heaven and earth to show up. (The short definition of filk is ‘songs of the science fiction and fantasy fan community’.)

I spent hours and hours before the convention rehearsing what I would say to her. Among the things I wanted to say was:

“I want someday to write as well as you do. Not ‘like you do’, because I want to write like I do, but to craft stories with characters as memorable as yours, craft relationships with the same intense and vibrant realities that yours have, and plots as thrilling as yours are.”

The only part of that I actually said was “I want someday to write as well as you do.”

To which she replied, “Keep working at it. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. I know.”

And one of the reasons Bujold is my favorite author is because I know she knows. You can see the changes, the growth in her writing as you read through her series. And unlike the majority of series authors I have read, her books just get better and better and better. Because she’s been honing her craft, stretching herself, and exploring possibilities. And as I read with her, I stretch out too. Aha moment: Growth as a writer comes with practice and with exploration.

She explains in the Afterword of Cordelia’s Honor “…the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask ‘So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?’ And then do it.”

This was my first introduction to the concept of character driven writing. Previously I had been a very plot oriented writer, but I always felt the plots were too weak to really drive the story. Perhaps I was taking the wrong approach. Perhaps the character should drive the plot instead of the plot driving the character. I took another look at all the books I had read over the years, and asked myself why the memorable ones were memorable. And the answer was almost always “Because the characters were like real people to me.” I guess this was less of an “aha!” moment and more of a slow revolution in my way of thinking about my plots, but I think it was one of the most important things I learned. I am still struggling to implement character driven writing in my own stories, but I know it is worth the effort.

Bujold also realizes that the words that end up on the page are only half the story. The other half doesn’t come about until those words are processed by the reader’s mind. And each reader’s mind is different, and brings in a different world-view and different prior experience. The words on the page, the action on the screen; these things are not viewed in a vacuum. In her essay “The Unsung Collaborator” (found in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma), Bujold explains that readers will fill in the gaps in a story with detail the author might never have imagined. As she further explains in “When World Views Collide“, it is the interaction between the author’s world-view and the reader’s world-view that will make or break a story for any particular reader.

At the filk convention, Bujold once again acknowledged and respected the amount of work and investment readers put into her stories. My “aha!” moment: By acknowledging that the story is finished in the brain of the reader, you learn to convey the story so that most people take the journey you want to send them on. But you must be ready for them to take a slightly different path than the one you paved, or even to stray off the path into a story experience of their own choosing. And nothing you write can prevent that from happening.

Even casual conversation can trigger “aha!” moments. As I was leaving the con, I went to say good-bye to Lois, and thank her again for her stories and her insights into the writing processes. As I approached, she was talking with one of the performers about a song the based on a key scene in Memory. Bujold said, “I am glad that you recognized that was the true climax of the book. A lot of people think the action after that scene is where the climax occurs, but the true climax was the emotional one. The action afterward is just winding things up.” “Aha!” moment: The emotional climax of a story can be independent of the physical climax, and is the more important of the two. It all circles back to the idea that the character’s development is what really moves the story.

As I said goodbye, I told her, “I am extremely glad I had a chance to meet you. I’m sure a gazillion people tell you this, but you have really been a profound influence in both my life and my writing.” She admitted “a few dozen” people have said that, and she sometimes found the idea a little unnerving. She added that she set out to write to please herself, mostly. My latest Bujold inspired “Aha!” moment: Write stories that please yourself first, and, in the words of her character Emperor Gregor, “Let’s see what happens.”

Final Poll Results

A New Day, A New Page

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

Like a fresh page of a new notebook, the year stretches before us and like during the year that’s just passed, we lick the tips of our pencils and wonder where it is we begin. What beasts will be conquered, what dreams will be accomplished, what will we do this year to make it different from the last. How will we fill these empty pages both figuratively as individuals and literally as writers?

Writing is by and far one of the more solitary pursuits in this crazy, crowded world—we long for the lonesome, long for that time when the world around us has receded. It’s our time to do our thing, to create, to be happy. But if this is what we actively pursue, then why is it when we finally achieve it (the kids are in bed, the significant other is running an errand, the ringer on the phone is OFF), we don’t make the most of it? What propels us to log onto the Internet rather than loading up Word? How can we succumb to acting out another SIM reality or flipping on the soaps when our own realities are begging to be spun? What leads us done roads well traveled when we should be on those ragged paths that lead to who knows where?

The pure nature of our passion is based on solitude, and as a result, it’s easy to see how it can be one of the most difficult to commit to. But it can be done. Any fitness expert will argue that exercise regimens are most successful when you have the support of either a friend or a group. Rehabilitation programs like Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrate that same philosophy—weekly meetings and sponsors are mandatory. So if writers are infamous for our isolation, then what are we to do? Where’s our buddy huffing along at our side and where are our twelve steps keeping us on track? They’re there—but it’s up to you to pursue them. Here’s a gentle push in the right direction.

Background Image: Jess C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  1. Set goals, not ‘resolutions’.

Recently, at Chasms and Crags, Beaver pointed out that she typically chose to refer to her yearly ambitions as goals rather than ‘resolutions’. The idea being that “resolutions are vague wishes that are destined to fail (often due to their daunting scope: “I’m going to write a novel this year!”). Goals are achievable things (it helps to keep them concrete & small: “I will fill one page—even if it’s total crap—each day.”) that you actually plan to do this year.”A goal is a nice idea—it’s something that you can aim for, without the pressure of having to succeed. Much better than a resolution, which often becomes something that needs to be dealt with to avoid failure.

  1. Seek out a writing environment and participate.

There’s something to be said about peer pressure—it’s not always a bad thing. When we surround ourselves with those with whom we have things in common, it becomes natural to want to fit in. By joining a writing community, either physically or online, you can use the effects of peer pressure to your advantage. Surround yourself with those that are writing and sharing their work and you’ll feel yourself drawn into doing the same. When you witness the response and feedback that someone else gets, your need for similar attention will kick in—you’ll desire the same thing. It’s hard to be involved with a group of talented people and not want to share their experiences. Toasted Cheese aims to provide this kind of environment online, but it’s not the only place where writers meet. Do a search online and find out where the community for you is currently residing.

  1. Try writing something daily.

Any fitness expert will tell you that consistency is the key to a successful exercise regime. Writing is no different. If you are to think of yourself as a writer, then you need to write daily. It’s hard at first to establish that routine, but once you do, it’ll be natural for you to pick up that pen each day.Toasted Cheese has added a new feature to their site to help you get started writing each day. It’s a calendar of daily writing prompts that are simple and a lot of fun—for example, one of January’s is to “write about something blue.” Why not give one a try? Visit!

  1. Find a writing buddy.

Everyone can use a buddy, no matter if it’s to spot you while lifting weights or a sponsor to keep you from taking that next drink. A buddy keeps you going when you think your writing is trash, and a buddy will lick the stamp for your latest submission. All of us have dreams of success in a world where many fail and so who wants to go it alone? Toasted Cheese might even be able to help! Visit the “Find a Writing Buddy” area and see if you can’t find someone to travel that lonely path with you.

  1. Attend ‘meetings’.

An important aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous is their weekly meeting—members rely on each other to stay sober each day. Writing groups can achieve a similar form of success—as a group, we can rely on each other to write each day. Find a writing community that meets at least on a weekly basis either in person or online. Take advantage of Toasted Cheese’s weekly chats that already exist by viewing the chat schedule. It’d be great to see you there!

  1. Take part in a class.

Being around other writers is an important part of maintaining your motivation to write and it’s an added bonus if you can actually improve your skills while you do so. A writing course will help you grow in more ways than one and when you find the right one, it’ll be something to look forward too. Universities offer tons of writing courses but they’re not the only choice. Check out your local library for recreation programs and see if you can’t find a writing course that’s “write” up your alley. Another option is to consider a writing class online—they exist and have their advantages too—you can wear your pajamas and eat popcorn if you like!Not sure if you’re quite ready to start with a course? Then why not just write with some other writers? A new concept at Toasted Cheese is the Writers’ Brunch every Sunday where in the first half-hour, a couple of writing prompts are presented and everyone writes. In the second half-hour, participants talk about what they wrote. Sound like fun? You better believe it. And best of all, it’s free!! See our chat schedule for more details.

  1. Understand why you’re not writing.

Probably the most common reason for not doing what needs to be done is time. Unfortunately, between you, me and the keyboard, that’s a lame excuse. If the average person sleeps for 8 hours each day, then that leaves 16 waking hours. That works out to 960 minutes each day. Don’t tell me that you can’t find at least 15 minutes to write?Time is merely a scapegoat, a ridiculous excuse. For many people, the reason for avoidance is a much deeper and more acceptable reason—fear of failure.

People don’t exercise because they get discouraged and think they will fail. They can’t drop 20 pounds; why bother trying? Alcoholics avoid recovery for more serious reasons perhaps, but isn’t denial partially refusing to accept that you are a failure to yourself?

Get past the fear of failure and perhaps writing will become more appealing to you. Stop writing to get published and instead write for yourself. Allow yourself that freedom, and perhaps writing will once again become something you want to do.

  1. Accept the nature of your solitary pursuit.

We live in a world that is over-stimulating and words like lonely, anti-social, seclusion all have negative implications associated with them. But these words also work to your advantage as a writer —and so it’s something that you should adapt to.Practice being alone. Start with 5 minutes each day and rid yourself of all distractions. Turn off the TV, shut the door or take a walk around the block. Distance yourself from people—tell them that you need ‘me-time’. Don’t feel guilty, you deserve it! Increase your time each day until you’re at 15 minutes and then use that time to write.

To get your started, visit one of the many boards at Toasted-Cheese that offers a 15-minute writing prompt. Or, use the calendar. 15 minutes may not seem like a long time—but it can work out to anywhere from 300 to 500 words. Do that every day, and in a week you’ll have written a short story (or chapter) of a reputable length!

  1. Create your space.

Perhaps one of the most awkward things about exercise is the whole idea of being self-conscious, of having those around you watching. And like exercising, writing is hard enough on its own—it’s even worse when you have an audience.Find a quiet spot where you can write and then label it your spot. It can be anywhere—the kitchen after everyone’s in bed, the room with your computer (with the door shut!), even the bathroom if you’re really pressed for space. Surround yourself with things that will please and inspire you. A cup of hot coffee, a novel by your favorite author, candles or incense. Take it a step further and craft yourself a Do Not Disturb sign and tape it to your closed door. We’ll even provide you with one—print off Toasted Cheese’s very own Do Not Disturb sign! [Set your page setup to “landscape” before printing on 8½ x 11 paper.]

  1. Writing comes first.

A lot of exercise experts agree that the best time to workout is early in the day. Not only does it make you feel great, but you don’t have all day to find excuses not to. The same applies to writing.Consider writing first thing in the morning, before all those pesky distractions start to surface. Take 15 minutes or a half an hour before rushing out the door. Do it before you shower or grab your breakfast. Plenty of writers started their careers this way and it makes sense if the rest of your day is hectic. And of course, the perk is you get to go through the rest of your day guilt-free because you’ve already written something.

If you’re not a morning person, then consider writing to be the first thing on your list when you have some free time. Ignore the television, the Internet, the sink full of dishes. Think about how much writing you could get done in a week if you skipped just one thirty-minute sitcom each day!

  1. Keep a journal.

Food and exercise journals have become very popular on the weight-loss scene and they can help with your writing as well. Journals help to keep you focused and are a great way to track your progress. Use your journal to chart the circumstances that either assist or prevent your from writing. Check back through your entries and start to look for the occurrences in your day that either kept you from writing or inspired you to write. You can then start to focus on what you need to eliminate or add to your daily schedule so that you are writing more.Need some tips? Check out Boots’s recent article at Absolute Blank about journaling to help get you started!

  1. Start today.

How often do you hear people who want to lose weight or even stop drinking, say, “Okay, we’re going to change things, but it’s Friday—I’ll start on Monday.” Procrastination is probably the biggest hurdle to conquer in any challenge. Stop it! You’re only cheating yourself by delaying the inevitable because when Monday comes, you’ll find another reason.The best way to avoid this pitfall is to start immediately. If you want to write, then do it. Now.

So there are twelve steps to get you started. The year stretches out before us, its pages just waiting to be filled. What story are you going to tell?

Final Poll Results