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?

 

Advertisements

Read

bokeh_mood_books_read_pages_flowers_butterfly_fantasy_1920x1200

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read other writers. By reading the work of other writers, we can gain a multitude of benefits.

Reading fiction is like taking a vitamin for your brain, psyche, and soul all at the same time.

Besides creating something in our brain called grounded cognition, literary fiction also increases empathy because it helps us to “understand the emotions of others.” And specifically literary fiction, because it “has more depth,” is better for us than mainstream fiction. It’s like the difference between organic food and fast food for our bodies. The fast food might fill us up, but it won’t give us the same nourishment or have the same lasting beneficial effects as the organic food.

 

While these benefits can be had by anyone who picks up a novel or a short story, for writers, the benefits don’t stop there.

When we read other writers, it causes us to step outside our tried and true habits, go-to word choices, and predictable rhythms. Can you imagine having only one window from which to view the world and never being able to go outside?! Reading other writers affords us the opportunity to look through many windows and expand our view of writing and of the world.

Expanding our vocabularies is also important, as is studying how other writers turn a phrase. And we can reap the benefits by reading fiction both mindfully and unmindfully.

By reading mindfully, I mean that we can choose a particular book with the sole purpose of studying the mechanics of it to find new ways to freshen our own writing, which is not to say we should be moving away from our own voices that took so long to find in the first place, but being aware of how others utilize the language, approach story, and tend to character should be a regular exercise for any writer.

Likewise, reading unmindfully, just reading for pleasure, can also benefit our writing because it wakes up our imagination, works on our subconscious, plants seeds for future use that we aren’t entirely aware of.

And lastly, reading diversely is also important. Life is busy, and our days are full. Finding time to read our favorite authors is hard enough, but it’s also important to read authors who aren’t our favorites. Or authors we’ve never heard of. Especially under-represented authors. Filling our heads with as many voices at possible, letting them hang out together and talk to each other will only add to the rich cacophony of possibilities in our own work.

On my nightstand right now
Mythic Imagination by Joseph Campbell
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

*     *     *

What are you reading?

 

 

 

 

Fall in love with your characters

hand-drawn-heart

You know what it’s like. You’re chugging along with a story, all’s going as planned, the wheels are turning and placidly moving you and your characters forward so you’re in the flow and the outside world has fallen away and this imaginary world you’ve invented is sparking every one of your senses and you’re not even aware of time and then all of a sudden

| screeching halt |

A character has stopped listening to you. She’s veered off and has yanked you from your creative cocoon with the thin, silver cord that tethers you together. At first, after you’ve regained some sort of cognizance about what’s happened, you let her go. You want to stay open. Magnanimous. But then it starts to become clear. She won’t – or can’t – do what you had in mind.

You might start to feel confused. Frustrated. Angry, even. But if you know anything about interpersonal relationships, you know the best way to scare off another person is to use anger or control to muscle them into doing what you want. And you don’t want to scare away your character. You don’t. Because if you do, she’ll sink deeper into your subconscious, cross her arms, and you’ll be caught in writing purgatory.

Sometimes writing isn’t just about putting words on the page or screen. Sometimes it’s about stopping and having a heart-to-heart with one of your characters. The way you would someone you deeply care about. Someone whose heart you want to know and understand.

We have to be in love with our characters the way we’re in love with our kids, with our best friend, with our partner or spouse. If we can’t love our characters this way, if we can’t know and understand their hearts, we’re not going to be able to tell their stories with the unflinching and honest integrity they deserve. Even if they’re exhibiting behavior we don’t understand to show us their dark and secret wounded selves – and maybe especially then – it’s our responsibility as writers of their stories to make them real, no matter how unreasonable or shameful their actions or motives may be and no matter their role in the story. We are their mouthpieces, the purveyors of their humanity.

This means we have to be able to love even our antagonists. We have to become the interpreters of their soul path in life, even if their behavior is despicable. We have to help our readers see the humanity in our characters because life – especially in fiction – does not happen at opposite ends of a light vs. dark spectrum.

When you take the time to discover the deeper reasons why your character is laughing instead of crying at her mother’s funeral, why she lies or hurts herself and those around her, why she can’t stand up for herself, when you climb inside her skin, sink into her psyche, and enter her heart, you become her, and when you become her, you’ll learn what she’s afraid of. Chances are, whatever you find there might just apply to you, too.

And this is the thing about writing fiction. It makes you vulnerable. And you have to be vulnerable if you want your characters to be vulnerable. Just as in real life with real people. And with that vulnerability comes compassion. And with compassion comes a deeper understanding of people and the human condition.

And with that, you’ll be a better writer.

And a better person, too.

 

*   *   *

 

Do you have a character who needs clarity?

What’s her/his name? Who is she/he?