Ask your character what she wants

If I find myself just writing scenes where characters talk because I like the sound of their voices or the way they are together, I know it’s time to step back for a minute, re-evaluate, and do an exercise to refresh my brain.

Image credit: my-favorite-coloring.net

Image credit: my-favorite-coloring.net

One thing I do is get the characters talking about something different and that will actually move the story forward is to ask each of them in the scene this question: What do you want in this situation and why?

Then I let them have at it. I write in first person monologue for as long as each one needs to talk. And I free write. I recommend setting a timer if you haven’t done free writing before or if you really, really believe you won’t be able to get very far.

Commit to at least 5 minutes of free-writing, which means once you start, you don’t stop. You keep the pen/pencil moving on the paper (yes, you have to do this by hand), even when the character is being obstinate and won’t say much. When this happens, just keep writing, even if it’s just I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say. Eventually, he/she will say something new and different, and it will probably surprise you.

Try it. It works!

 

Start watching at 1:35…

 

Getting to Know You: Backstory – How much is too much?

In my Writing Through the Body workshop this week, we talked about backstory a little. Backstory is your character’s history. It’s everything that happened before the story you’re telling.

Knowing your character’s backstory will help you make informed decisions about her or his motivations, intentions, and behaviors in the story you tell.

Shadow box prop from Found Objects the film: "Can't we sit to-geth-er..."

Shadow box prop from Found Objects the film:
“Can’t we sit to-geth-er…”

Before we went into production on my feature film, FOUND OBJECTS, I wrote extensive and detailed backstories on all the characters and sent them to the actors who would play the parts. By the time we started production, they had clearly ingested their respective characters and showed up fully embodying them.

Even though we aren’t acting out our characters in fiction writing in the literal sense, in some ways, we are. We have to be able to slip into their skins to portray them with authenticity, and the best way to do this is by thoroughly knowing their backstories.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the backstory will wind up in your story, though. In fact, oftentimes it’s better NOT to include it.

In the video below, KM Weiland quotes Ernest Hemingway:
“Backstory is the nine-tenths of the story under the water.”

Watch the video to see what else she has to say about backstory.

And Libby Hellman has more to say about her process of creating backstory
for the main character in her novel, Easy Innocence.

 How do you create backstory for your characters?

Know when to quit

Know when to quitWhen many writers talk about writing, they focus on getting the machine started and keeping it running—that is, creating the right mindset and environment to allow flow to happen and actually get words on the page or screen.

But what about knowing when to stop?

And I don’t mean stop, as in quit or give up on writing altogether. I mean, how do you know when to stop on any given day?

Comedy writer Ken Levine writes about this subject and tells us how he and other writers know when to stop. And the answer to this question is most definitely the different-strokes-for-different-folks kind.

For me, as I’ve written in the past, achieving flow is not a problem. I have a busy brain that mutates ideas fractal-style, so I’m never at a loss. (Generally, I have too many things to write about or two many ideas for a story in progress. It’s a good “problem” to have, so I’m not complaining.)

Because I have my fingers in a lot of different things right now, I’m not able to write every day, so I’ve blocked out two full days each week – Monday and Thursday. These days are devoted to writing and nothing else. I don’t let anything interfere. I close my browser windows and leave my cell phone in the other room.

But two days isn’t enough writing time for me, so my tendency is to want to just keep going and going and going when I’m finally able to get back with my characters. I love them, and I love the world we’re creating together. But the reality is, for me, that after so many hours, things start to feel stale.

For instance, yesterday I was working on the beginning of the second act of my screenplay, Miranda’s Garden. I’m working from an outline (I can do this with screenplays, but not so much with fiction.), so I always set a milepost for myself at the beginning of every writing day and decide how far down the outline I plan to work.

Yesterday, about two-thirds of the way there, I caught myself writing scenes that did nothing in terms of moving the story forward. I LOVE dialogue, so I can just sit and listen to my characters perform idle chit-chat endlessly, but if I’m going to sell scripts or get them made into films, or if I’m going to write novels that have a reasonable page count that anybody’s going to what to publish, I can’t do that. That said, though, I never feel the time spent writing unusable prose or dialogue is a waste, as it always gets me where I need to go.

So yesterday, when I found myself acting like a person who was just hanging out with her friends rather than a writer telling a story, I stopped long enough to think about what I needed to accomplish to not just move the story forward, but to deepen character development and the relationship between the characters in the scenes I was working on. I did this knowing that on Monday when I sit down to work on it again, I will, more than likely, need to revise that section. I prefer this, though, as it gets my head back in the story and back with the characters. Then I’m off, writing forward until I start to go stale again.

Another way I know it’s time to stop is by listening to my body. If I’ve sat in a chair tapping away at the keyboard long enough that my back, neck and shoulders ache, it’s time to quit. Sometimes, though, I just have to forego the pain a while longer so I can get to the place that feels right. So I can start in the right place the next time.

*    *    *

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

 

Nobody does it like you: develop and know your process

For me, the hardest part of writing is getting my butt in the chair. Once I’m there, and I begin, everything flows.

When I’m wrapped up in a story and a character, I’m unable to turn it off, even when I leave said chair. Images and dialogue (mostly dialogue) filter through my mind, and if I’m not at my desk or near it, I have to put these fragments down. Otherwise, they fade away, like a dissipating puff of smoke.

Before iPhones, I collected the pieces of stories that landed in my brain like jigsaw puzzle pieces on napkins, old envelopes, concert program notes… Anything that was handy. This was especially true when my kids were little and writing time was a premium. I also carried a small hand-held tape recorder with me everywhere I went.

Now I use Notes and Voice Memos in my iPhone, but I still do a fair amount of scribbling on random remnants of paper and other things when I don’t feel like thumb typing. Then, eventually, I organize them in a digital file and keep it on Google Drive (along with the piece I’m working on) so I can access it wherever I am and no matter which device I’m using.

For me, it’s typical for this stage of jotting down random snippets to continue throughout the writing of an entire piece. Once the substantial writing begins, another process takes hold in which I do a fair amount of moving forward, then backtracking, adjusting so that what I’ve set up in the past makes sense for what I’m setting up now.

In an interview, Margaret Atwood describes this as the rolling barrage technique.

She also says she uses “a sharp object with a pointy end” (pen or pencil) and whatever flat surface is nearby when the beginning of a new novel comes. As she progresses, she uses sticky notes and a bedside notebook.

Knowing your process is crucial to your production. If you know your process, the writing will come more easily, and you won’t find yourself staring down the snout of the mythical monster called writer’s block.

As Atwood says, “If you’re not finding this happen somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity.”

*     *     *

I do a different kind of writing at the keyboard than I do by hand, and both approaches served different functions.

By hand

initial random snippets
editing drafts

Keyboard

mind dumping big thoughts so I can organize
writing the story

*     *     *

Do you start with pen/pencil and paper or with the keyboard? Do you know why?

If it works and you don’t find yourself sitting, stuck, that’s great!
If you do find yourself stuck, try changing up the way you work.

 

“I just have to plunge into it.” – Margaret Atwood

 

 

 

 

Feel the flow: Write with your whole self

minimal-desktop-wallpaper-meditate

Creative writers know that feeling of being in the zone: the wheels are turning, placidly moving you and your characters forward so you’re in the flow, the outside world falling away, and this imaginary world you’ve invented is sparking every one of your senses and the outside world has become nonexistent. It’s trance-like. And it’s only after this trance-like state of mind has occurred that we become aware of it because to be conscious of its presence in the moment would send it back into hiding like an owl at the first blush of dawn.

Virginia Woolf writes about this phenomenon of getting lost in the creative process in To the Lighthouse:

“Can’t paint, can’t write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modeled it with green and blues.” (18) Susan Perry, Writing in Flow

Writers yearn for these slippages in time because it’s during this boundary-less, water-like immersion with our characters, their world, and our subconscious that we tend to get our best work done or at least get most of our work done. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as flow. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: ‘It was like floating,’ ‘I was carried on by the flow.’ It is the opposite of psychic entropy… and those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy has been invested successfully in goals they themselves had chosen to pursue.”

In her book, Writing in Flow, which is the result of Susan Perry’s in-depth interviews with several well-known writers, Perry says that experiencing flow typically occurs when writing creatively, such as fiction or poetry, rather than journalistically. Clearly, it happens when the writer unhooks from her reality and crosses the threshold to her subconscious, the all knowing place we possess deep within that gets muted by the racket and responsibilities of our daily lives.

Perry also says that while most writers can’t explain how they achieve flow and don’t have a specific method for achieving it, they agree that something different happens in their minds and in their writing when they reach this dissociative state. While anyone who has ever experienced it can attest to something happening in the mind, I believe something happens in the body, as well.

As a college writing professor, I always encouraged my students to write with their whole selves, rather than cutting themselves off at the neck and writing only from their heads, which seems to be the inherent project of academia. I wanted my students to engage their hearts, too, but not in a sentimental way. I wanted them to throw themselves into the mosh pit of discourse on their topics of interest with every ounce of passion they could draw up.

I now know that I was intuiting this process I’ve developed called Writing Through the Body™, although I hadn’t even an inkling then of how to explain it to them, or to myself, for that matter. Whenever I made this statement to them—Write with your whole self—a few nodded in agreement, but most of them looked at me blankly. It wasn’t until I had the revelation that my Divination Deck (created in 2005) and these writing workshops I’d been tossing around in my mind even longer should be combined. That’s also when I realized that the magical experience I had had years before when writing my novel, Miranda’s Garden, occurred because I had achieved a massive unblocking of energy, and I was able to enter and access my subconscious in ways I had never done before. With the coalescing of these seemingly separate ideas and projects, Writing Through the Body™ was born.

When I posted a notice on social media in the Fall of 2013 announcing the beta test for my first online Writing Through the Body™ workshop, someone responded and expressed interest. He quickly realized that the “TM” near the title was the trademark symbol and didn’t stand for “transcendental meditation,” as he had first imagined. When I explained the concept of the workshop, this was his reply: “I might be more interested if it involves meditation. Not sure I want to get into the chakra stuff.”

Unfortunately, some people have a negative view of the chakras, if they have one at all, thinking they are an off-shoot of the new age movement and nothing more than new age vernacular, but people like Caroline Meis and Deepak Chopra have helped normalize the misconceptions of chakras and demystify their meaning by introducing them into the mainstream. We still have much to learn, however, about these powerful energy centers—or color wheels, as some refer to them—in our bodies so we can use them to their full potential.

Chakras are not a new or faddish creation. In fact, they have a long history in Eastern ideology, having first been realized in India.

As the Western world has progressed in its thinking and has become more aware of the connection and fluidity between our simultaneous existence in both the material and spiritual realm, and that we are not bodies and minds separate from our souls, the line between spirituality and science has also begun to merge.

Before her death, which came far too soon in 2013, neuroscientist and pharmacologist, Candice Pert, had made significant strides regarding the understanding of neuropeptides, which are, as she explains to Bill Moyers, strings of amino acids that encase every cell in our bodies and which led her to what she called a “unified theory of emotion.”

In an interview with Adam Omkara, Pert discusses her revelation, as a researcher with a hard science background, that these energy centers she had been studying show up in the body in the same locations as the chakras. She says, “I realized in 1987 that areas along the axis, from the top of the forehead to the base of the spine, these classical chakras areas corresponded to what I called ‘nodal points.’ Places where lots of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides were released.”

Pert doesn’t distinguish between the mind and the body. She refers to what we all possess as the bodymind: one entity with no separation. She says, ““The mind is not confined to the space above the neck,” and “The ‘me’ that’s you is your whole body.”

Additionally, Pert discusses unexpressed emotion in an interview with Lynn Grodzki, and says, “I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged lower in the body.”

As writers who take on the task of being the purveyors of our characters’ humanity, it is essential that we dislodge as much stuck emotion as possible, allowing it to move through us so we can best express our characters’ motives from an emotional and psychological standpoint. This is flow. When we block emotions, we block our chakras, and this truncates flow.

With this in mind, I created the Writing Through the Body™ process for fiction writers, which utilizes the chakras of the body to help writers access and enhance the kind of deep character development that quality, impactful writing requires. As writers, we need to have intimate relationships with our characters, which will in turn allow us to write deeper fiction, which will in turn create greater self-awareness in us.

Creative writers are, for the most part, sensitive souls. We see what many others do not. We see the veiling of human existence and sense the emotional aspects of life vibrationally. We think more deeply about life and the human condition than most. For this reason, life can be a brutal assault on our senses. To manage this assault, we must create protections for our own emotional survival, and they can become second nature to us. To write effectively, we need to be able to let down those protections, remove the blocks that we’ve so deftly put in place to self-protect, and let flow occur in the safety of our own sacred writing spaces.

This is what the Writing Through the Body™ process does. It helps writers clear energy centers and stuck emotion, which leads to a triple-faceted benefit: 1) by taking part in a meditation for each chakra, writers will begin the process of clearing each, one at a time, to allow the flow of emotion necessary for the tapping of the subconscious required to write deep fiction, 2) by focusing on a particular chakra and its positive and negative manifestations and answering a series of questions specific to each, writers can delve deeper into their characters’ psyches, giving them the ability to render their characters with more complexity, and 3) while engaging in this process, writers will realize the personal benefit of becoming more grounded and more aware of themselves and the world around them. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts:

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.”

As writers, our “consciously chosen goal” is to write characters with depth that take our readers to places they otherwise would not go, to connect with them, to make meaning of life. Imagine the difference we can all make by enhancing our ability to get into flow, to access the depths of our subconscious and render more complex and meaningful stories while simultaneously enhancing our own sense of well being.

What do you do to achieve flow?