Who Needs Inspiration?

I’ve been reading a lot of writing advice recently. Don’t ask me why, since most writing advice hinges on style and method, which are personal to everyone. This is just one of my ways of killing time instead of doing productive things, like finding a new job.

Since I’ve been pretty much indiscriminate about which writing advice I read, I’ve come across a lot of contradictions. Sometimes the advice is meaningless enough that I don’t really care whether someone contradicts it or not. But some quotes on each side of a debate have stuck with me.

One thing people seem to be in disagreement about is the matter of inspiration. A number of authors advise writers not to wait around for it. If we sit around waiting for the inspiration to strike, it never will and we’ll finish our lives without ever having made our goals. Others say that it will come. Don’t worry about it. Better to wait and write something inspired than to wallow in bad prose, trying to push through a mental block.

I feel like I’ve been on both sides of the fence here, opinion-wise. When I’ve truly been inspired, I’ve taken every spare moment to work on my piece. I’ve been driven to ignore all temptations such as games, books, films, and the internet. I’ve neglected meals, because the end is always a few sentences away and I can’t bear the possibility of losing my inspiration and my train of thought just because my brain couldn’t control my body.

That being said, my moments of inspiration have come few and far between. When I was really busy on my MA, I only wrote when I was inspired. As a result, I have two pieces from that time – a completed short story, and the prologue to what I believe will be a very interesting novel if I can ever capture that voice again. I do regret that I didn’t spend more time on my fantasy writing during my MA.

I feel – and perhaps some of you do too – that the writing I do when I’m inspired is superior to what I do when I’m just writing because my story needs to go somewhere. But I don’t honestly know whether my writing is better. My judgment may be clouded because I enjoy writing more when I’m inspired. After I finished that inspired short story during my MA, I sent it off to a writing buddy. She tactfully avoided my questions about it and did not provide me with the critique I requested, so I can only assume she didn’t like it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, of course. I would ask for at least a second opinion before I decided to scrap the whole thing. It might, however, be something that should never see the light of day again, no matter how inspired I was to write it.

I feel as though my first drafts need more work when they’re uninspired, even if I’ve planned them out beforehand. However, my extra level of attachment to my work might cloud my judgment.

Does anyone else feel a difference in the quality of their work when they’re uninspired/inspired? Or is it just that things get done faster, so the draft is finished at lightning speed? Or does inspiration come in the ideas, rather than the more concrete written word?

I’ve Found My First Procrastination Tool

Okay, it’s not really my first procrastination tool. There was the rest of the internet, and other writers complaining about plot lines, and thesis, and about a thousand other things. But this is cooler than cat gifs, George Takei, and those horrible television shows that I hate to love (I’m looking at you, Once Upon a Time and Vampire Diaries).

A shout out to Graham Edwards, who wrote about something called Wordle on his blog. Thanks, Graham. Now I’ll never get anything done in November. After writing every fifty words, I’ll stop to see what my wordle looks like.

Wordle is an application that turns text into word cloud. You can put in as much or as little as you like (as far as I understand it) and see how often you use certain words in your writing. You can also play around with the font, color and orientation of your cloud.

To experiment, I took the prologue of a work in progress and put it in to Wordle. The piece is 3,695 words long. I was utterly convinced that it was going to be dominated by the word water.

Wordle: prologueOh, how wrong I was.

It took me a fair while to even find water on there. I figured goddess would play a prominent role. I was a bit surprised to see that Doge had taken the top slot, since that character was only in around half of the prologue.

This application is interesting to see what we think we are writing about, and what we are actually putting down. Of course, the words don’t mean a lot without some kind of order to them. But all the things I thought were major or minor themes didn’t seem that important when crunched via the Almighty Method of the Wordle. Perhaps if I were less tired, or smarter, I would be able to figure out how the themes I’ve tried to incorporate do manage to show up in the word cloud.

But alas, I have been giving tours all day and all I want to do is be a mindless zombie and drink my chai. And play around more with wordle.

If anyone else feels like making a word cloud, feel free to post the results up here. It will be fun and colorful!

Just for fun, I put this post into wordle, too.

The Artist

artist: cabecadaShe hadn’t known Stephen long; he’d come into their lives a few months ago. He had emerged from that mental twilight that always separates the us from the others and had joined their friend group with all the ease of a cat settling onto its perch. Even though he was the youngest of them – only seventeen – sometimes he seemed as though he were the most adult, the only one among them fully formed and ready to take on the world.

He had always been so comfortable with himself. It was what made the funeral so strange – the stiffness and awkwardness with which he lay in the coffin. He seemed ready to leap up at any moment, straighten his tux, and go play the part of best man for some older friend’s wedding.

Did he really look so solemn in life? she wondered as her hand skated across the page. Should she look just as solemn? Most others did. Anna was seated across the room, sobbing into a black lace handkerchief. Then again, that numb and callous part of her brain reminded her, Anna had a flair for drama. She was probably the only person in the city who even had a black lace handkerchief.

Anna had also been Stephen’s girlfriend.

She hated funerals. She hated the way that no one seemed comfortable in their grief, and that no one seemed to know what to say. And she was no better than anyone else. She only knew how to talk with her hands, and she did so now, sketching without really thinking. Because thinking would make her just as uncomfortable as the rest of them.

No one noticed her as she sat with her open pad. Or if they did, they pretended not to. They wanted their time alone with him to seem real, perhaps – as though they were in a little bubble around the sarcophagus, and only they could speak, and only he could listen. They murmured and they cried, and they said goodbye. And as they left the church, she heard many of them say, “why?”

As if the corpse would sit up and reply, or the church would split and some angel would emerge from the steeple to tell them. Maybe they wanted reassurance, that this death had some grand significance and the young, brilliant man had been taken for a reason. Whether the reason was there or not, it was an answer they would never get. And if they could, she wondered as she drew, would they have been able to handle the answer they got? Would they even have been able to understand it?

Drawing was the one thing she had really shared with Stephen. She was always a little too quiet, a little too off to the sidelines while he seemed caught in the spotlight on a regular basis. But they were in art class together, and it was the one place in which she seemed to outshine him. He wasn’t jealous of her talent, just admiring. He’d asked her once to make a portrait of him.

“If you don’t think it’s too weird,” he’d said with the half-smile that seemed to get him anything.

Well, she was making his portrait now.

She became aware, suddenly, of a presence just above and behind her. She picked up her pencil and half turned to see who it was, and found herself staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Anna. She still held that ridiculous lace handkerchief and she leaned over to scrutinize the sketch. Her eyes wandered over the shape of his head, his eyes, the bridge of his nose. Then she hissed with all the venom of a rattlesnake, “It looks nothing like him.”

Anna stalked up to the coffin, looked down for a moment on the last expression of her beloved, and burst into a loud wail, throwing herself down over the upper half of his body. The artist held up her sketch and compared it to the corpse that was now being given the extra burden of his former girlfriend, who didn’t seem inclined to let go or even muffle her shrieking.

Anna was right. It looked nothing like he did now.

It looked the way he used to, when they sat together in art class. Pensive, focused, iconic. And with a strength hidden in him that couldn’t be expressed through that stiff stillness.

The artist closed her sketch pad and stood. The others could mourn their dead comrade in his wooden box. She, at least, would leave with something living.

***

Thanks to cabecada for the inspirational piece of art, which was originally brought to my attention by bwthoughts. I wish I could have done it better justice but sometimes I guess you just have to put out what’s on your mind.

If you’re interested in getting some of your own art exhibited on this page, why not send it on over, or link me to its location? Visit the Call for Art page for more information. And, of course, comments and constructive criticisms are always welcome.

The Info Dump: My Best Friend, and My Story’s Worst Enemy

In my opinion, beginnings are the hardest things to write. Sure, maybe I can make a first sentence that seems catchy – at least to me – but then I have to write another. And another. And I have to set up all the little things that snowball into that one big thing that becomes a story.

Of course, when an idea pops into my head, it’s usually that middle, snowballed story. So I have to backtrack and figure out how the story becomes a story. And from that, one of two things happens:

1) I don’t think my backstory through enough, so my characters’ reasonings are insubstantial, nonsensical and unbelievable; or

2) I try to pack in the action to make people interested – then relate in a long backstory right at the beginning all the relevant information that will come into play later in the story.

This second thing is, of course, the info dump. We want to make sure everyone knows what we’re talking about, so we tell them absolutely everything. And it’s a tendency particularly among fantasy writers. Because we often set our story in a different world, we have to make sure that our readers understand its rules in addition to all the little plot details.

As a writer, when I info dump, it’s usually there not because, deep down, I think that readers need to know that information right away. It’s because I need to get all those thoughts in order, and figure out how my world works. I need the info dump for myself as both a basis for understanding, and a way to move the story forward. If I waffle along for a couple of pages, I usually think that I can move on to something exciting without ruining the pacing. Oh, if only it really worked that way.

So how do we introduce a world without writing an info dump?

1) Switch points of view: J. K. Rowling used this to great effect in her first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. “The Boy Who Lived” follows the day of Vernon Dursley as he goes about his life. As he meets all these wizards on the streets of London, we get to see from the eyes of an outsider, rather than being told how to see like an insider.

2) Make your main character an outsider, too: Whenever the main character learns something, the readrs do, too. If your main has never been to a big city before, then he’ll have to learn all the rules of the city before he gets arrested or kicked out. Right now, people are getting kind of irritated by the whole outsider thing, because practically every fantasy book is about some naive boy or girl who goes from being an insignificant nothing to the savior of the universe. So maybe don’t make your character too much of an outsider.

3) Be strategic: This is what I like to call the Suzanne Collins approach. That lady explains a whole lot in The Hunger Games, but it works because she explains it all piece by piece. Katniss doesn’t tell us all about the opening ceremony before she’s even picked in the Reaping. So we get info dumps, but they’re little. They’re not too much to take in.

4) Avoid that lengthy, but oh-so-useful prologue: This might be a pet peeve of mine. It’s very easy to give a ‘short history’ of a world or even a universe in order to set up what comes next. A character’s back story is one thing to set up in a prologue. The entire history of the world is quite another. To me, at least, it often feels rushed, forced and rather artificial.

5) Incorporate myths or folktales: Folktales and myths are ways of explaining strange phenomena of the world, or imparting some wisdom about good and bad behaviors. They’re often entertaining to read because of their whimsical style, and since they’re designed to tell something about the world (physically, spiritually, morally etc), they fulfill the role of informant without seeming forced. As long as you can legitimate including the tale in the first place…

So, there are a few ways to avoid that info dump. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but can be avoided with a bit of thought.

In what other ways can you avoid that dreaded info dump? Comments always appreciated.

Muses and Musings

Yesterday, I found out that my favorite band of modern times has parted ways with their lead singer.

Their press release was muddled, uninformative, and came right in the middle of their American tour. Needless to say, their fanbase was upset and confused.

Symphonic Metal band Nightwish has had its share of problems regarding singers, breakups and bad press. They sacked their first singer in 2005 with an open letter that led to a well-deserved (in my opinion) storm of bad PR. Their parting of ways with their second singer was handled a little more delicately, but a careful look at the circumstances makes it clear that things didn’t end amicably here, either.

I’ve never been much for muses, but the music of this band always inspired me. The melodies and lyrics carried extra stories in them just waiting to be tapped into and released. Sometimes I would listen to just one song for days and days while writing a story to match its pace and theme.

The discovery of this news left me depressed. I love their work so much that I want to be able to love the people involved just as unequivocally. I just want to listen to good music, and write to it when the mood strikes!

But I’ve found that now the music has a little bit of a taint. It will probably go away in time. But I’m disappointed in my muses, as far as they can be called such. It’s unrealistic to expect that they be more than human, but as I revered their music for so long, I guess I wanted to revere them too. It’s like watching two good friends get divorced. You want to think that neither of them did anything wrong – but you know that both of them contributed to the current state of affairs.

I will continue to use this music as an inspiration, and to follow the journey of my favourite musical artists. I know I should separate their lives from their work, but that’s easier said than done. What do you guys do when an idol disappoints you? Have you had this kind of experience?

Maybe This Time…

I try to participate in Nanowrimo every year.

By that I mean, I get at least one hour down the pike before giving up. Sometimes I get a couple thousand words in. And a few times I’ve gone all-in, and finished that novel with hours to spare.

I’m subscribed to the OLL blog and last year I was pretty active in my little writing group here in Copenhagen. During (and after) the Big Event, I kept hearing about these amazing people who had not only managed to write a novel in a month, but had managed to rework it, polish it, edit it, send it off to an agent or publisher, and sell it. Some of the people in my writing group were preparing to self-publish their work.

All this made me take a long, hard look at my previous novels. What I found was – lack.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 1: I seem to recall I started on this one rather late. A young man receives a very rare book from his dead grandfather, along with a note saying he has to protect it at all costs. In finding out what, exactly, the book is, why some people want to destroy it and others want to protect it, he ends up getting into all kinds of trouble.
What it lacked: Substance, really. While my main character did a lot of things, I don’t think I ever clearly explained why it was he had to do them, who was after his book, or what it was all about. It was an entertaining story but I’m not sure I’ll revisit it.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 2: It took me four years to complete a Nano challenge again. I’ll admit I was a little surprised, since I had no idea what I was doing and had absolutely no plan until November 1. My story centered around a vampire protagonist who was the main villain of a gothic novel – only she didn’t want to be the bad guy. The book followed her efforts to become self-aware and change the plot, with the help of some (and hindrance of other) secondary characters.
What it lacked: Although I enjoyed writing it as a humorous piece, I don’t think this will make it to a publishing house in its current incarnation, because it lacks originality. A vampire we can sympathize with? Been there, done that. Characters of a novel becoming self-aware? Likewise. It was fun to write a mock gothic novel, but the angle isn’t enough. I’ve got plans for changing this one, but not this Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 3: Emboldened by my success the previous year, I decided to try re-writing the second novel I ever completed. When I was 16, I produced an irritating, plotless adventure that even I didn’t really understand. It focused on a young girl who had a singular magical ability, and forged an unlikely and disapproved of friendship with the nearby magician’s son. I then spent the next six years trying to figure out what to do with it. I always liked the characters, but needed something more substantial for them than the wandering adventure that I had. So I made her the subject of an early-teen marriage to an older man, had them placed in a powerful position at some foreign court, and put in some mystery. Oh, and then I killed her.
What it lacked: I liked the way the manuscript started. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do from there. The decision to add in a little murder came towards the end, and then I realized what I really wanted – my novel was supposed to start with the murder. That led to something entirely different that won’t resemble, in any way, the mess I began six years ago. This manuscript lacked certainty. It’s something I hope to bring back to its latest incarnation – and maybe I’ll finish it this time.

This year’s novel: After a little tribulation, I decided to go with what I described in my book blurb # 1. It’s not the most original premise of the ones I posted, but I picked it because it has strong characters. That means they won’t be waffling around while I’m trying to figure out where the plot goes next. I have a clear picture of them all in my mind, so I won’t have to force actions on them or think up a reason or two. The plot doesn’t really have an unsolved mystery, which I’d have to figure out before the end, and it doesn’t have complicated magic, science or world views.

I’ll be blogging daily during Nanowrimo, in an attempt to stick to my word count. I’ll probably vent some frustrations about writers block, the cafe where I’ll do most of my morning writing, balancing Nano and thesis, and so on. I know that there are fellow Nano’ers out there in the blogosphere; maybe we can all put together a support group of some kind.

Anyone interested in Nano support, let’s hear it. Problems in previous years, trends you’ve noticed, suggestions for some kind of group…

Searching for Reality in an Artificial World

I have returned from my trip to Venice and Florence with a camera full of pictures and a belly full of gelato, just the way such trips ought to go. I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, and I didn’t get to update my blog – in fact, internet was so scarce on the ground that I couldn’t even write to tell my boyfriend I had landed.

I went to Venice to enjoy myself and see an old friend, but I also went there to gather inspiration. I’m working on a story about a city with canals instead of streets, gondolas instead of carts, doges instead of princes. I wanted to walk around Venice and soak up the atmosphere, see how this bizarre city works, and try to inject some of that magic into my writing.

But, to be honest, I don’t feel like I got to see the real Venice. I don’t even know whether there is a real Venice. It’s all mask shops and paper shops and glass shops punctuated by restaurants with overpriced tourist menus. Even when we tried to avoid the more tourist-populated areas and visited places like Cannaregio (where the Jewish Ghetto was built), we couldn’t escape the tourist-trap feeling.

The entire island was sinking under the weight of visitors. Every time I looked at the houses above the shops, or the little side areas that appeared to hold residents, I wondered: Can people actually live here?

I wouldn’t be able to do it.

The Venice I wanted is probably the Venice that everyone thinks of when they set out. Something darkly romantic, full of secrets exchanged in gondolas and hidden behind carnival masks. Whispers in the night. Secrets the day does not quite manage to conceal.

This is no more the real Venice than the city I saw. But I was hoping, in my travel, to find some kind of truth that I could work into my prose.

All I saw was a city so heavily gilded that no one could pass by without stopping. Full of light and sound and colour and shape – the city is full of the appearance of substance, but the meat of it eluded me completely.

So, after traversing the islands on foot for four days, we moved on to Florence.

Maybe living in Venice would give me a different perspective on it – but I wouldn’t really want to move there to find out. I will keep looking for my great metropolitan muse. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other stuff to write.