We are all told to incorporate the five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste— in our work. But what about their six lesser-known cousins: balance, motion, time, temperature, direction and pain? A few years ago I took a workshop on The Eleven Senses (Who Knew?) from the fabulous Marilyn Kelly and found that paying attention to these elements added an extra dimension to my writing. (Note: my examples below are only meant to illustrate the concepts, not be timeless paragons of writing excellence )
- Balance is the sense that stops you from falling when you are walking along the edge of a roof, running from the bad guys, or standing up too fast after one too many drinks. How can you punch up your writing with balance? Think about stability vs instability. How does your heroine feel after three gin and tonics and a waltz around the ballroom? Steady and grounded or tenuous and wobbly? I’m thinking you might write something like: “Miranda stumbled from dance floor, head spinning. She leaned against nearby table, the wood providing a calming anchor .”
- Motion, when considered as a sense, is how we perceive the relative positions of parts of the body. It is an internal measure based on how our muscles, joints, etc feel. It’s the sense that tells you how fast to drive, how far to jump, and when to turn. Using motion as a sense means thinking in terms like ambling, gliding, or darting instead of walking. It is not only a matter of using a strong verb – it is also about the speed and direction of the movement. Instead of “turning” – pivot right. Instead of “James drove down the highway, narrowly outracing his pursuers,” you might write “James accelerated down the long stretch of highway, spun around the hairpin turn and lost his pursuers in the gathering gloom.”
- Time seems pretty simple – it’s how we perceive and measure events. Time can also be a very powerful writing tool. We have all heard of the ticking clock to build suspense, but did you know that showing how time slows and stretches out can also increase suspense? Say your hero wants nothing more than to run off and join the circus, but he’s stuck in class all day. The clock ticks slowly, oh so slowly as he looks at it every…single…minute…until it’s finally three o”clock and the bell rings and he jumps from his seat and runs out the door and oh boy! It’s circus time! You can make time last an eternity in those few seconds or whiz by like a hummingbird on crack. Your choice.
- Temperature is how we perceive heat and cold. From glacial to hellish and everything in between, our sense of temperature is affected by the weather, the air conditioning, what we’re wearing, and our own comfort zone. Don’t drop your heroine in the Amazon rain forest and neglect to have her sweat—unless she’s ensconced in a building with some mighty impressive A/C. And we feel more than heat and cold—temperate conditions are important too. “Tepid breezes played across Jessica’s bikinied body. She’d come to Phoenix for the heat, damn it, not this too-pleasant climate the locals were calling a ‘cold front’.”
- Direction is actually the ability to detect a magnetic field to perceive altitude and direction – a stronger sense in geese and salmon than in humans. We use direction to center the reader through the character and help avoid the dreaded “white-box-where-the heck-am-I” syndrome. Direction uses words like around, between, above, behind, below, up, down, left, East, and under. It can be absolute (‘five point two yards”) or approximate (“a few light years”). I might use it in a sentence like this: “Cameron gripped the narrow handhold carved into the side of the cliff. The drop loomed below at a sharp three hundred feet, and the jagged rocks jutting out from the water looked seriously uninviting.”
- Pain is the perception of damage—real, near, or imagined—through pain receptors located throughout our body. Scientists classify pain into different types, but for our purposes the most useful classifications are thermal (hot and cold), mechanical (crushing, tearing, etc), chemical (iodine in a cut), somatic (deep pain like broken bones), and superficial (minor cuts and burns). Figure out what kind of wound or pain to come up with the right words. A minor cut might be: “Diane wiped the blood from her hand—the slice didn’t look too deep, and the sting had already eased.” A gunshot wound might be a bit different: “The bullet hit his shoulder like a hammer, spinning him around. A crack sounded as his bone snapped. At first, all he felt was numb. Then came the burning, searing pain.”
How do you use the “other” six senses? Did I leave out your favorite sense (danger? duty?) and you want to talk about it? Sound off in the comments!
Okay, I admit it. I love reality TV competition shows. Project Runway, Top Chef, Work of Art, The Voice, 24-Hour Catwalk – anything that forces creative people to compete with each other under extreme pressure and turn out sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful creations. So what, you may ask, does that have to do with writing? More than you might think.
- Pressure aids creativity. Week after week, contestants in these shows turn out some amazing work, whether it’s a fabulous ballgown constructed overnight or a four-course dinner whipped up in an afternoon. Could the work be better if they had more time? Maybe – but sometimes the magic happens because they have less time to second-guess their first creative instincts and simply go with their impulse. That doesn’t mean there is no place for editing – but it does mean that the first ideas are often the freshest. I’ve found with writing that I can create some of my best work under high-pressure situations like NaNoWriMo – as long as I edit later.
- All creative artists can get blocked, and most blocks come from fear. Writers talk about writer’s block as if only they get stuck in the middle of their creative process. But all creative artists get blocked from time to time, and, I think, for the same core reason – fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of revealing too much of themselves in their work…the reasons go on and on. But the solution seems to be the same – stop thinking and act. When you only have a day to complete a three outfit collection on 24 Hour Catwalk, there’s no time for “designer’s block.” You have to face your fear and do your best work, as one designer did in a recent episode, or lose. What I learned from this example is to not shy away from facing my own fear when I feel blocked in my writing – face it head on instead. Write and keep writing, and the block with lift.
- Don’t jam all your ideas in one piece of work. Several years ago, a remark from Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn had a profound effect on my writing. While counseling a contestant on a particularly overwrought garment, he mentioned that it is a common failing of new fashion designers to put every big idea into their first major piece of work, creating “a hot mess.” A little light bulb went off in my head – I had been doing the same thing with my first novel, jamming all my concepts for the series into it until it was bursting at the seams. I was able to save that book by identifying what would make it a great stand-alone novel and taking everything else out, saving those elements for the follow-ups.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s interesting to watch the success of the contestants who are always watching the competition vs. the ones who are only listening to their inner voices (and maybe the occasional comment from a judge). While everybody on these shows must be a little nervous on how they compare creatively to others, I rarely see the ones who are obsessed with these comparisons succeeding. Instead, the winners are almost always the people who follow their own vision, even when I don’t always see it or appreciate it. The lesson for me is to not worry so much about what other writers are doing, about their successes or failures, or about publishing trends. Just follow my own vision and be true to it, even when other people don’t always get it. Whether I win or lose the publishing game, I know I’ll have done my best by being true to myself.
Do you watch reality TV shows? Do you think they help your writing, and how?
When starting a new novel, I’m always looking for ways to supercharge my muse. Here are a few places I turn to when I’m searching for inspiration for intriguing characters, evocative settings, twisty plot ideas, and those little details that turn a book from a generic muddle into something special.
- Museums and art galleries. I’m a visual person, so I’m revitalized by colors, shapes and textures that take me to places I’ve never been and make me feel things I haven’t felt. I love going to a museum and delving into a great exhibit on another culture or another time. A recent exhibit on Finnish design at San Diego’s Mingei Museum got my head filled with fantastic names, intricate patterns, and brilliant uses for technology.
- Conventions and Writers Conferences. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, once said that Comic-Con was the inspiration for his show due to the sheer creativity on display. I certainly find conventions to be wildly inspiring. Just being with so many creators and hearing about what they’re doing sparks ideas. I love going to conventions like Comic-Con, RWA National, and San Diego’s local science fiction convention, Condor, where I’ll be a guest speaker this weekend. I get the same charge from our local RWA meeting and the fabulous guest speakers we have every month. I always come away with more than one idea for a story.
- Pinterest. Devoted to pinning images on boards to make collage-like collections, this addictive social media network is a never-ending stream of delicious inspiration. My Pinterest friends post fantastic pictures of faraway places, yummy images of fantastic meals, and gorgeous pics of fascinating people I’d love to use as models for characters. I can assemble any pictures I like onto boards. I love Pinterest so much I have to limit my time using it. If you want to join Pinterest and don’t have a membership yet, put out a request on Twitter or Facebook and someone will most likely send you an invitation.
- A Walk in the Park. I live across from Balboa Park in San Diego, one of the most beautiful nature preserves I know. I go walking there almost every day. Nature never ceases to inspire me — from the crows fighting for scraps picnickers have left, to the eucalyptus trees shading the wide lawns, to the sunlight streaming through the Museum of Man tower. The people in the park are characters waiting to be born too — from the man in the business suit hiking through the canyon (why? where is he hiking to?) to the guy in a red polo shirt guarding the line of black SUVs parked along Balboa Dr. My mind spirals with ideas of who these people are and what they’re doing… and stories are born.
What inspires you?
I have a story in an anthology called Live and Let Undead from Library of the Living Dead Press, available now from Amazon. The print edition is out now, the e-book edition will be out in a few weeks. The publisher is also doing a podcast of the anthology – all our stories will be read by voice actors. I’m pretty jazzed about that.
The anthology takes a new look at zombies – what if humanity found a way to use them or co-exist with them, rather than exterminate them? My story, Reborn, is set in a world where a powerful church controls the rebirth of the dead, allowing some to come back as mindless slaves put to work to serve society. A young widow clashes with the Church when she searches for answers to her husband’s suspicious death.
Are you a fan of zombies? What’s your favorite zombie book, movie or TV show? Or do they leave you feeling all dead inside?
Last week I outlined a ten-step plan for goal setting for writers and other creative types. This week I’m using some of my own goals to illustrate that plan and, not coincidentally, get my own goal setting going.
- Be Specific – My short term goal is to finish my current work-in-progress. In order to make this goal specific, I’m going to say, “Finish my 80,000 word YA fantasy novel, currently at 72,000 words (and just shy of the climax, plot-wise).” That means I need to write 8000 more words. But is that all? Nope.
- Identify Roadblocks – When I think about writing those 8000 words, I know it isn’t that easy. What’s been stopping me from finishing is a thorny problem plotting the climax. So I add another goal: solve plotting issue.
- Create measurable objectives – since I measure my writing in scenes rather than chapters, I break goal one down by figuring out how many scenes I need to reach 8000 words. Since I know that the average length of scenes in this book is 1760 words, that’s about 4.5 scenes (round up to 5). I’m going to say it’ll take me two days to write each scene for a total of ten days. For the plotting issue, my objective is tougher – I can schedule time to plot by myself, or plan brainstorming time with my writing group (a brilliant band who have saved my bacon on plotting problems many times). I’m going to brave it out and devote one week to wrestling this plot problem to the ground by myself. Those objectives add up to 17 days of work.
- Create a schedule – I know my real problem is understanding how to make the climax of the novel work. Until I figure that out, the writing isn’t going to matter. So I schedule the plotting session first, then start writing.
- Can I do this? – the writing isn’t the hard part, it’s the plotting. When I’m stuck, it’s hard to get unstuck. I’m hoping that devoting time to the problem will help shake my muse up. So yes, I think the goals are attainable.
- Commitment – I’ve personally committed to getting the book finished in the next month, and I think telling you all about my goals qualifies as committing to my goals publicly. I love using Twitter and tags like #amwriting to say where I am in the process on a day to day basis.
- Resistance – Some of my personal sources of resistance are playing computer games, watching TV, reading (every writer I know has that one), general procrastination, and using that thorny plot problem as an excuse. By taking down the plot problem first, I’m hoping to eliminate it as a source of resistance. As for the others…
- Rewards – I’m planning to reward myself with an episode of one of my TV shows, a chapter of a book, or a half-hour of a game every time I meet an objective, like finishing a scene. I’m hoping I can help stave off the forces of resistance by converting them into rewards instead. Haven’t decided on a big reward yet for finishing the book. Any suggestions?
- Start now – I’ve entered these goals into a cool, free website called Lifetick, that lets me enter my goals and objectives, email reminders to myself, and keep track of what I’ve accomplished. Now it’s time to start plotting!
What are your writing goals? And how do you plan to reward yourself once you’ve met them?
Filed under Goals, Writing
To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time. – Leonard Bernstein
Want to achieve your goals in 2012? It helps to have a plan. Below I’ve outlined 10 steps I’ve learned from past experience and gathered from best practices to help you on your way.
- Create specific goals. Whether you want to write a novel, paint a mural, or redecorate your house, your goals need to be specific. “I plan to write a 120,000 word young adult fantasy about a teenage girl falling for a sparkly vampire” is more specific than “I plan to write a novel.” Not that I’m suggesting that you write that book – but you get the idea. Your goal should be specific because it’s easier to break specific goals down into objectives – the next step.
- Create objectives. It’s easier to reach a goal if you break it down into small steps. Create objectives for your goal. For a novel, you can break the writing down into sections or chapters. There will likely be more steps to your goal – background research and plotting, for example. Figure out what the steps are, and break your goal down into manageable sections. There are many tools that can help you manage your progress towards your goal – even just writing these goals and objectives down on a piece of paper or in a Word file will help. If you want to get fancy about it, there are project management tools like Microsoft Project or Basecamp that can help.
- Make your goals measurable. After you create objectives, decide how you want to measure your progress. If you’re a writer, you can assess your work in page count, word count, or number of hours spent working on your manuscript. If you’re an artist, measure yourself by time spent working on your piece, pieces completed, or whatever accounting works for you. Just so long as you use some measurement. Set a goal – such as 1000 words per day, or two hours a day – and stick to it.
- Make your goals attainable. It can take time to find out what’s reasonable for you. For example, for some writers, writing a novel in six months is no big deal. For others, one novel a year is a better pace. And figuring out how many words or pages that breaks down to depends on how much time you can devote to writing. Everyone is different. Give yourself time to find out what an optimal goal is for you. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t achieving your objectives right away. Don’t compare yourself to others, but do set goals that challenge you and let yourself grow.
- Make a commitment. All the goals in the world will lead you nowhere without commitment. Make a commitment to yourself to meet the goals that you set. If it helps you, write down your intention to meet your goals on a piece of paper and sign it.
- Tell the world. Further reinforce your commitment to your goals by announcing them to the world. Post them on Facebook, tweet them, tell your friends and family. Update your progress on toward your goals on all your social network sites. Partner up with a friend and help each other reach your goals.
- Do your research. Before you start your project, know whether or not your project fits the requirements of your field. For example, if you’re writing a novel, understand the typical word count for the genre you’d like to write in.
- Understand resistance. Resistance is that nasty little force that keeps you from reaching your goals. It’s that voice inside your head that says you’d much rather play video games or watch the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy than write your book or paint your picture. The bad news is that you can’t get rid of resistance. The good news is that you can manage resistance. Ignoring it does not work. Giving into it does not work. This is what does work (in my experience): acknowledge that resistance is there, that it wants you to stop, and then go on working. And watch Grey’s Anatomy only AFTER you’ve met your goal for the day.
- Reward yourself. Every time you meet an objective, give yourself a reward. Martha Beck, author of The Four Day Win, recommends that you give yourself a small reward every time you reach a small goal and a large reward every time you meet a large goal. You decide on your own small and large rewards – small rewards can be time spent reading or watching TV, an ice cream cone, a bubble bath, a walk in the park or anything else you enjoy. Large rewards could be tickets to a ballgame, the theater, that expensive book you want, or anything else that means “reward” to you. Use rewards to motivate yourself.
- Start now. Don’t put off creating your goals and objectives and making the commitment to succeed at whatever it is you want to do. The sooner you start, the sooner you will finish.
Next time I’ll use my goals and objectives for the new year to illustrate this method.
And if you are an RWASD member, don’t forget to register for the January Workshop on Writer Resolutions: Realistic Goal Setting for 2012.
What tips do you have for meeting goals and objectives? Have you set your own yet? What are your goals for the new year?
Filed under Goals, Writing
Got any writers on your holiday list? Here are some last-minute gift ideas.
- Books. Reference books are sure to be a hit with your writer friends. The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale is my favorite thesaurus. It’s a great place to find those strong verbs and action words. Another great pick is On Writing by Stephen King — both a memoir of a first-rate writer and a great craft book. A gift card to your favorite independent bookstore is also a no-fail selection.
- Time. One thing every writer could use more of is time to write. Why not give a gift certificate for babysitting, housekeeping, or other chores? Or make your favorite writer a delicious homemade dinner so he or she can spend their time on their novel instead of in front of the stove.
- Technology. If you want to splurge, a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader is cheaper than ever. Kindles now start at $79, Nooks at $99. If they already have one, a gift card for e-books is sure to be appreciated.
- Supplies. Every writer I know could use more notebooks, pens, pencils, sticky notes, paper clips, and other office supplies. This is an area where you can get really creative — like with these typewriter key paper clips or an endangered species eraser.
- Journals. I know I fill up a new writing journal almost every month, between notes, research, and character sketches. Even the most technologically advanced writer appreciates the beauty of a well-crafted journal like the ones from Paperblanks, Moleskine, and local artist Susie Ghahremani.
- Typewriter Key Jewelry. Because it’s pretty darn cool.
- Chocolate. I think this one speaks for itself
What’s on your wish list?
Planning to do NaNoWriMo next month and want to know the secrets of not only surviving, but thriving? Take it from a veteran and NaNoWriMo “winner” – a little preparation goes a long way. I’ve watched many innocent writers wander into NanoLand with a few ideas and lofty goals only to give up a week in after they run out of inspiration under the merciless whip of NaNoWriMo’s tight schedule. Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, taking some time beforehand to prepare will ensure you not only finish but also survive with your sanity intact and novel completed.
- Lay down your story concept, characters, and as much of the plot as you’re comfortable with beforehand. I know you pantsers are wincing at this, and is a fellow pantser I feel your pain, but I believe it is worthwhile. Minimal preparation might be a logline and a few quick character worksheets. If you’re feeling a little more ambitious you might add goal, motivation, and conflict outlines for your characters, and sketch out some of the plot. If you have more time and a higher comfort level with preparation, add in world building and outlining.
- Set aside time in your schedule each day during NaNoWriMo for writing. Pick a time that you know you will have free and uninterrupted. In other words, don’t pick that hour when the kids come home from school or your mom insists on calling every day. If you need to go to a coffee house or some other public place to write, do it. My local writer’s organization sponsors get-togethers every week during NaNoWriMo — chances are good somebody in your city does, too.
- Know your goal and work towards it. To make that 50,000 word goal at the end of November, you’ll need to write an average of 1667 words per day. If you can’t write every day, you’ll need to work more on the days that you can’t. Plan for this in advance by scheduling blocks of time on your calendar during weekends and other days when you can write for longer periods. Your manuscript will thank you.
- Go with the flow. Don’t try to edit while you write — banish your inner editor and let the words come as they will. If you followed my first tip, and have some idea of what your story is and who your characters are, let that preparation be your guide as you write. Trust your instincts, and don’t worry about whether you’ve written everything just right or not. That’s for the rewriting process – perfectionism has no place during NaNoWriMo.
- Minimalize cheating. Resist the urge to pad your manuscript with superfluous words to up your word count. It won’t help you meet your word count as much as you think, and it detracts from helping you to write a better book. Having said that, the occasional gratuitous sex scene (or pick your favorite guilty writing pleasure) can make the writing go faster
- Use the NaNoWriMo community. The forum is a great help for research, support, and inspiration. You’ll find people there who can answer your questions about everything from species of cave dwelling bats to Russian swear words, challenge you to writings sprints, and be a shoulder to cry on when your computer just ate the only copy of your book (did I mention you should backup your work?)
Are you planning to participate this year? What are your favorite tips for NaNoWriMo? Leave me a comment and let’s chat.
A few years back, when I began to get serious about the craft of writing, I poured over instruction books. Some were good, some were a waste of time, but a few contained exactly the right piece of information I needed to understand whatever thorny craft problem I struggled with. None of them substituted for writing often and long – the best tool I have found to learn how to write. But when I get stuck, I still go back to a few of these helpful guides:
- The War of Art – Every writer struggles with resistance. Resistance to sitting down in front of the computer, to writing the next line, to revising that difficult chapter, to sending out that first (or fiftieth) query letter. Steven Pressfield’s book taught me how to identify and conquer resistance by acknowledging it, refusing to fight it, moving past it, and doing the task at hand no matter how much the forces of resistance want me to give up. His method is like aikido for your inner demons. Nothing makes resistance go away for good, but Pressfield’s book gives you a weapon to use against it.
- Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott’s gently humorous guide to the writing life is both a practical handbook of how to overcome common writing problems like perfectionism and a warm voice of companionship on lonely nights of writing and re-writing. Lamott makes it okay to write “shitty first drafts”, to feel jealous of other writers’ successes, to fail over and over until you succeed. Her tips on how to silence the critical voices in your head long enough to get a first draft done made this book one of my favorites.
- Immediate Fiction – A few years back I struggled with the old “show, don’t tell” thing. Sure, I understood the theory, but I had trouble applying it in my own work, or so a few plain-speaking critiquers told me. Then writer/editor Michelle Scott recommended Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver, and I “got” it. Cleaver explained “show, don’t tell” in a way that I could apply to my own work. He also does a bang-up job of showing how to describe emotion. Immediate Fiction is the best book I’ve found for these two elements of writing.
- The Fire in Fiction – Donald Maass’ classic book on adding depth and passion to your novel has much to add to any writer’s repertoire of techniques, but my favorite takeaway is the concept of a scene’s turning points. A turning point is the exact point in the scene where change takes place, either for the reader (an outer turning point), or the POV character (an inner turning point). Using Maass’ techniques, I began to re-craft troublesome scenes around turning points and voila! those troublesome scenes became magical.
What are your favorite books on writing, and why? Leave me a comment below and share a few.
If you’re anything like me, you find it difficult to sit in front of your computer without checking out Facebook, posting to Twitter, or watching the latest Daily Show clip on YouTube. All that distraction can be a problem when you have a writing deadline. So how do you eliminate the noise and concentrate on the blank page in front of you?
- Turn off the Internet. Literally. Programs like Freedom let you disable the Internet for set periods of time, freeing your attention for your plot and characters. Other programs such as Anti-Social and Leechblock let you limit how much time you spend on social networks like Facebook.
- Change locations. Bring your laptop to a coffeehouse without wi-fi, or better yet, a park. Anyplace you can sit and focus without the constant distractions of 24-hour news and sports scores.
- Write without a computer. That’s right, go old school: pen and paper. Not only will putting words down in ink free you from the temptations of the Internet, but the different writing format may also liberate your muse. I’ve found that switching from typing, to handwriting, and even to voice dictation results in freeing my writer’s voice in surprising ways.
- Use a writing program with a full-screen mode. Programs like Scrivener, WriteSpace, Dark Room, and WriteRoom allow you to make the blank page your entire screen, blocking out menus, palettes, and all distractions. While facing the empty page can be intimidating, the lack of diversions can be freeing.
So what do you use to get rid of distractions? Or does switching back and forth from your work-in-progress to Google+ to HBOGO add power to your writing? Leave a comment and let me know.