Saturday, August 30, 2014

Writing Poetry: Get Inspired

Poetry, as any academic will teach you, is about more than rhyme and rhythm....

Okay. Anybody who hangs around the lonely poetry corner at the local bookstore knows that poetry is about more than rhyme and rhythm. But few poets are so free with their concept and practice of writing poetry as Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In his poems "Poetry as Insurgent Art" and "What Is Poetry?" he takes the practice of composing from the restrictive to the liberating in, of course, poems. These are two excerpts.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Drive into the Discomfort Zone: Four Roads of Counterintuitive Inspiration

Inspiration is an elusive goal.
Just when you have the perfect theme,  the ideal character, and the ideal setting; just when you have pumped life and wit into a beautiful balloon called a story, it happens. You sit at your desk or computer, and you begin to type. Without warning, that balloon slips from your fingers, flies crazily about the room and, phthhp! The last breath peters out of it. It hangs momentarily in the air, then drops limply to the floor. Spent. Lifeless. Flat.
You try to bring it back to life. You type the same sentence five times, hoping something different will magically appear. You consult thesaurus after thesaurus searching for the right word. Any word! You scream obscenities at the insensitive walls. You get a nasty phone call from the elderly lady living upstairs.
Eventually, you just give up. The effort is as worthless as trying to teach a wombat to steer a golf cart. There's just no point.
Before throwing your monitor into the recycle bin at the local Best Buy, however, you could try a less drastic alternative: View the re-inspiration process as a road trip.
Road trip? 
Of course. You know your destination––a good story. You simply have to chart a course to get there. 
You could take the normal roads, like buy an encyclopedia of writing prompts, listen to Beethoven, build a cabin in the Massachusetts woods. Heck! You could even watch reruns of Ren and Stimpy.
The well-traveled routes, however, are not necessarily the most exciting, rewarding , and effective paths. Instead, try this. Drive into your discomfort zone, that route that leads through the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the scary.
The discomfort zone is rife with negative emotions: fear, anger, frustration, lonely, disgust, etc. Amazingly, these negatives can result in a positive. When focused, they remind us of what we want our story to be, what we want our characters to portray, and the value of conflict in both the reading and writing process. 
With the inherent conflict of the zone, accompanied by our human "God wish" to fix things, we have the promises of a great story.
So how does one enter the discomfort zone? Here are four ways:
1. Do something you don't like. This could range from the simply irritating to the daunting. Easy tasks could be to purge your closets, your kitchen, or your library. Another could be to wash the week's dishes BY HAND. To make the uncomplicated more difficult, leave the mower in the garage and cut the grass...with a weed whacker. For a major shake-up, consider a new apartment, change your day job, or investigate that funky smell inside the refrigerator.
2. Examine your past. Remember that old English assignment "Describe your most embarrassing moment"? Do it again, this time for you. Don't worry. You don't have to be literary. The only one to read it is you. However, to make the account uncomfortable, include enough detail to be cringeworthy. Ideas: The time you mistook the finger bowl at a fancy restaurant for a dessert drink. The time the faucet in the restroom at a crowded Wendy's sprayed the crotch of your pants. The time you learned how babies were made and realized that your parents did that. Sure, these events are humiliating, but so what? We're all messes. Use those times. They're what make you human. When you fictionalize the events with hyperbole, what could have been, and what you wish had happened, you have a wealth of material to use.
3. Try something new. For some psychological reason, most of us resist change, whether good or bad. "I've never done that before, and I'm not gonna" becomes our mantra. Instead, enter the discomfort zone and embrace change. A new cuisine, perhaps, like Cajun, Texan, or North Dakotan...I know. I need to get out more. Give into the Rosetta Stone commercials and learn a new language while investigating the people who use it. Start a new hobby, like collecting ceramic ducks. All new challenges  result in failures, challenges, and accomplishments, all of which can find their way into a successful story.
4. Reach out. The most unsettling, yet potentially rewarding, venture into the discomfort zone involves people you don't know and probably won't like. However, as a minister once told me, all people have unsurpassable worth. To find it, we need to encounter them; talk to them; find out what, how and why they think as they do; and learn what we all have in common. That doesn't mean we have to like what we discover, but we will at least know and understand somebody we didn't before. As a writer, you may even discover something about yourself, which can find itself into your story. Self-discovery is a great theme.
One attraction of fiction writing as a profession or hobby is the opportunity and ability to control a world of your own making, particularly the story's resolution. By driving into the discomfort zone, you will discover conflict and the inspiration to fix it. 
Resolving real life conflicts, of course, is another matter, but know this: You solve more problems by facing them than by avoiding them. 
The first step is driving into the discomfort zone and breathing air back into the inspiration balloon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Go with the Flow

For better or worse, the solitary writing world exists in a cosmos of mass distraction. 
While millions of sensations bombard us every moment, we write.
While we blot out the chaos, we write.
While we ignore base instincts like eating and sleeping––sometimes for hours, sometimes for days––we write.
We sit at our office desks, our kitchen table, the local coffee shop, the library––wherever––and we breathe a different air, an air that excites, intoxicates, and captivates.
We focus our minds on a story that must be told. We write and we write. Not just to earn a living. Not even because we want to. 
We are enthralled! We write because we have to.
So hours later, we glance up at the clock, gasp and marvel, "How did that happen? What was I thinking?"
The answer is we weren't; we were simply ultra-motivated.
But what kind of motivation erases reality? Historically, the two most employed motivators––the two utilized most often by governments, religions, parents, and teachers––are reward and fear. 
"Eat your vegetables, and I'll give you a cookie."
"Be good or you're goin' ta hell!"
"Why, I oughta.... I tap my foot at you!"
The use of reward and fear as motivation has been long chronicled, Susan Cain explains in her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Cain says “Since the days of Aristotle, philosophers have observed that these two modes––approaching things that appear to give pleasure and avoiding others that seem to cause pain––lie at the heart of all human activity.” (p. 171) 
But those factors are not enough to explain "binge writing," are they? 
No. Cain adds that such a philosophy "runs counter to the experience of people who just love to do their work." People, like writers.
Instead she cites psychological research, particularly that of Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi, who calls total task absorption "flow." Cain defines flow as "the state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.” (p. 172)
In other words, no thought of "What am I gonna get?" or "What's gonna happen if I don't?"  “The key to flow," Cain states, "is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the reward it brings.” (p. 172)
How can that happen? By breathing the air mentioned above. Using Csiksgentmihalyi's words, Cain explains that flow occurs when people "become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such an autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.” 
She continues: “In a sense, Csikszentmihalyi transcends Aristotle; he is telling us that there are some activities that are not about approach or avoidance, but about something deeper: the fulfillment that comes from absorption in an activity outside yourself.” (p. 172)
Things like time and space become meaningless. Csikszentmihalyi says that in flow, “a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working.”
While unexpectedly waking up to a new date on the calendar can intimidate anybody, it should not frighten writers. In fact, later in the chapter, Cain encourages us to abandon all restraint on the urge to write without ceasing. She says, “[F]ind your flow by using your gifts….[W]hen you’re focused on a project…your energy is boundless.” (p. 173)
And don’t let anybody or anything try to stop us.
“…[S]tay true to your one nature…. [D]on’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.” (p. 173)
To utilize an old cliche or two: Don’t fight the feeling. Go with the flow AND WRITE!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Characters: Don't Cheat Your Children of the 3 C's

We all have our favorite literary characters. Characters like Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, and Bullwinkle J. Moose.
Obviously, some are more literary than others.
One shortcoming these three have in common is they’re all adults. 
Sort of.
Why is being an adult a shortcoming? Because maturation destroys the most precious qualities children possess: consciousness, curiosity, and credulity. The 3 C's.
Children see. They wonder. They believe.
Adults? Not so much.
Children see everything, touch everything, taste everything. They are sentient creatures. They are sponges disguised as human beings. 
Adults? More like rocks disguised as human beings. Dull. Doubtful. Dead.
The problem for writers? Most of us are adults. Our world is populated primarily by adults. And we tend to only write what we know. 
Oh, we know children exist, so we might add one here or there to our stories, but for the most part, we force child characters into the background where they exist merely as scenery or annoyances. 
Unless you want to explore themes of consciousness, curiosity, and credulity, like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee did.
Children are especially conscious of the what is happening around them. Much as we deny it, we adults forget more in a day than we learn our whole lives because our sick brains figure that little of what we experience is really important to our existence. The child brain, on the other hand, believes everything is important. Everything is new. therefore, children pay close attention. 
Whether it seems like or not. Whether we want them to or not. 
Like to whatever we do, say, or insinuate. 
Dickens was a master at showing consciousness in such memorable characters as Pip in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in….well, Oliver Twist.  The reader learns early in both books that while these boys knew little about their background, they certainly suspected much. 
Dickens revealed the answers to the mysteries through childlike eyes. Through young characters, he reminded us what it is like to be a child by recreating the child's world.
 Meanwhile, Twain epitomized a different essential aspect of childhood in two of his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. While many academics dwell on the boys’ mischievousness and imagination, the trait that enables them to deal with life's difficulties is actually curiosity.
Their inquisitiveness has never failed to appeal to readers.
Even today in the 21st Century, child readers delight in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer because like them, Tom seeks to understand the workings of the world, the Mississippi River culture, and people in general. Like them, he looks for answers in literature and experience. Like them, he makes mistakes, but through bravado, ingenuity, and experimentation, he learns. 
The more Tom learns, the more he wants to learn. In his quest, he encounters––or creates––adventures that excite his own and the reader’s imagination.
But Twain doesn't stop with Tom Sawyer. He also gives his readers a chance to grow.
Inspired by Tom Sawyer, young readers turn to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not simply because Huck is a contemporary of Tom, not simply because they are growing up and Huck seems more mature than Tom, but because, through trial after trial, Huck maintains his childlike innocence.
Throughout his trip down river with the slave Jim, Huck questions, doubts, and reflects on the actions of the adult world. What he learns, he doesn’t like. Nor do we. However, unlike the adults Huck encounters, he retains his curiosity, rejecting the world-weariness of the people he is told to emulate.
Creating genuine child characters is not exclusively a male thing, as evidenced by Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Whereas Pip and Oliver represent consciousness, while Tom and Huck display curiosity, Scout totally embodies credulity, the willingness to believe.
Credulity is the childhood trait most quickly lost, not only in literature, but in real life. The more often a child is disappointed, the more quickly credulity vanishes. For example, when a child learns the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy, trust in the adult world vanishes. Doubt becomes a constant companion.
Scout, however, maintains her belief in her father, her brother, and the basic goodness of people despite the anger, violence, and bigotry of Depression-era Alabama. She sees a handicapped black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white girl. She watches as an angry mob threatens her father, Tom’s lawyer. Shortly afterward, Tom is killed by law-enforcement officers trying to escape. Scout herself is attacked as she walks home from a school program.
Despite these assaults on her welfare, Scout maintains faith in the goodness of people. The peaceful integrity of her father Atticus, the protection of town outcast Boo Radley, and the virtue of everybody important to her all vindicate Scout’s belief in humankind.
The three C's––consciousness, curiosity, and credulity––are only three childlike attributes authors can use to celebrate childhood. Others include a child’s willingness to persevere through disappointment and pain, their infectious and joyous laughter, and their instinctual reaction to new people. 
Not everything about childhood is praiseworthy. For example, you may want to avoid the screams of fast-food restaurant play areas, the savage games of dodgeball on the elementary school playground, and the pink and blue sticky fingers from eating a truckload of cotton candy. Just as you may want to avoid the profanity of highway construction sites, the pension fraud, and rumor-mongering when examining the adult world.
But if there’s anything we can learn from Dickens, Twain, and Lee, it is that child characters can teach us lessons that adult characters can only hint at.
The traits of consciousness, curiosity, and credulity can infuse your story, particularly your theme, with childlike hope and wonder. The best way to show them is not with adults, but with children themselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Completing Your Novel: Three Keys to Avoid Distraction

I hate distractions!
Oh, look. It’s snowing.
What? Again? Noooooo!
Where was I? 
Oh, yeah....
One of the greatest problems of completing fiction projects is the constant intrusion of distractions. No, not the weather; not the Terrible Trio of Chores, Children, and Chaos; but the inherent distractions of the the writing process itself.
Each new character, each new setting, each complication you encounter in the composition process can send your thoughts spinning off into all sorts of unintended directions that can alter your whole plot and purpose. Returning to your original intent can take days, weeks or months of diligent crafting and problem-solving that can prove either miraculous or disastrous. 
How does one avoid these unnecessary trips into potential oblivion? One of the best ways, is of course, outlining.
Outlining focuses your story and I highly recommend it…as long as you follow your outline better than I follow mine. 
For a great guide into the process of writing and using outlines, I highly recommend K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.
As instrumental as outlines are, though, Weiland and the authors she interviews caution us that becoming a slave to them has its dangers, most significantly the stifling of inspiration. 
A second key, then, is to be flexible, keeping open to the urging of your muse. For example, sometimes a small but insistent voice tells you it is imperative to kill one of your favorite characters, not because you dislike him/her/it, but for all the possibilities that the character’s demise opens up for tension, complication, or resolution. Here's a hint: Do it!
If you cling to your original outline, those doors remain forever closed and the story will remain dull or flat. Listen to the voice and let the story develop in ways it must. The excitement of discovery will engage your mind so strongly that all diversions will vanish.
So key #1 is plan or outline and #2 is to be flexible. Those are pretty common and easy-to-recall rules. Right?
There is a third key, however, that came to mind today only when the park behind the house disappeared under a veil of thick, sloppy, white gunk. It is also one of the most important lessons any parent can teach a foot-stomping, frustrated five-year-old. Remember this conversation?
“Mom, when am I gonna grow up?"
“A little while longer, dear.”
But, Mom, I wanna grow up now!”
“Don’t worry, honey. It will happen sooner than you know. Just remember: Patience is a virtue.”
"I don' wanna be patient. I wanna be big!"
As time goes on, we discover the truth of our mother's admonition. Adulthood comes soon enough, as long as we patiently endure.
For the purposes of the writing life, the same advice applies. Patience is not only the key to enduring childhood; it is the third key to avoiding the distractions preventing you from finishing your novel. Particularly when the ending seems so far away.
Yes, ideas build on ideas. Subplots divert and expand the theme. Revision leads to more revision. The whole story devolves into an incomprehensible mess...or so it seems. But patience and diligence can and will guide your story through the baffling and exasperating labyrinth to a logical and satisfying conclusion. 
Just like they will get us through this incessant winter. 
At the risk of becoming tedious and boring, today, in the middle of April, it’s snowing yet again. AGAIN! 
It’s frustrating! I want to claw out my eyes and bite off my fingers, but that's not a totally bad thing. Seriously. It reminded me of Mom’s words from long ago: “Patience is a virtue.”
Heeding her lesson, this morning I turned to a writer whose poems and essays never fail to calm the turmoil of the moment, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Grabbing my worn and highlighted copy of his collected works and also scanning his numerous maxims on Brainy Quotes, I found the following:  “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.”
took a deep breath, swallowed, and claimed the virtuousness of composure. 
I closed the curtains and resolved to apply the same restraint and sense of calm to finishing my latest project.  I decided even though the end seems far away, I will write! I will sit at my keyboard and type until the story is completed.
And I will complete it.
I’m pretty sure.
Some day.
When the snow stops.
I hope.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

More Than Normal: Cultivating Fascination in the Commonplace

If I ever needed confirmation that there is wonder in the ordinary, I found it this week. 
Everyday, we adults are exposed to a multitude of repetitive events and sensations, so many that we barely notice  them any longer. 
Somewhere we have lost the joy in discovery we had as children. That is unfortunate. 
Remember the days when you wondered why the sky is blue? The days when you chased lightning bugs at twilight? The days you tried to flush your sister’s Barbie dolls down the toilet just to see if you could and what would happen if you tried?
Okay. Maybe that was just a warped thing.
The point is we all used to wonder why things happen. 
Everything. Even the objects and processes we say every day.
But then we grew up and learned to ignore what didn't slap us upside the head and say, "NOTICE ME!"
What we as adults now fail to realize is that the commonplace is not as simple as we think it is. Just because we have experienced grass growing or spring snowfall innumerable times does not mean the occurrence of either is simple or dreary. As adults, especially for us writers, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the complexity of simplicity. 
Take thought itself, for example. 
When was the last time you thought about thinking? It’s something we all do daily––or claim to. In fact, we think so often, we fail to consider the intricacy of the process.
This week, I picked up a book that has been sitting unread on my shelf for some time: Escaping the Matrix by pastor Greg Boyd and psychologist/therapist Al Larson. What I found there about brain function at once fascinated and frightened me––fascinated because of the sheer enormity of the process and frightened because I realized how much I miss of what happens around me.
First, the fascinating numbers. According to Boyd and Larson, "The average adult brain consists of more than 10 billion neurons communicating with one another through more than 10 trillion synaptic connections....[T]he number of possible connections in the brain is more than all of the stars in the known universe (approximately 50 billion galaxies with an average of 10 billion stars each). Although the average dendrite is a fraction of a millimeter in size, if you were to line up all the dendrites in your brain, the line would circle the globe five times!”
Ack! And that’s in just ONE average adult human brain. And right now there are over 7 billion humans on earth! How many dendrites are there? How many have there BEEN? 
My head hurts.
But that’s just what is IN the brain. How can all those components operate at all? 
Evidently, quite well Boyd and Larson continue: "[T]he brain communicates much faster than you can possibly count, and it operates along millions of neurological pathways all at once. Were this not the case, it would take several lifetimes to think a single thought!”
The most overwhelming part of thinking, however, is not what the brain obtains. It is what the brain discards. Boyd and Larson explain: "During this process, you're being impacted by an estimated 100 million bits of information per second. The reticular activating system of your brain deletes 98 percent of this while the rest of your brain filters the remaining 2 million bits of information. From all of this, your brain brings to your conscious awareness only five to nine pieces of information per second it believes is most relevant to you at the moment.”
So the main function of the brain is…forgetting? Huh? I guess my brain works better than I thought it does.
But, more importantly, how much more should I know? 
And how much more is there to know? Now, my head REALLY hurts.
The point of all this for writers is, if all of this is going on when we think––one of the most commonplace occurrences––how much more is happening in other activities like growing, eating, loving, or simply existing?
There has to be a story there. Or two. Or a billion...
Which means everybody, every occurrence, every time is fodder for exploration, explanation, and exposition. Tapping into the childlike fascination we once had is the best start.
I wonder what else is on my bookshelf.

Credit: Boyd, Gregory A. and Al Larson. Escaping the Matrix: Setting Your Mind Free to experience Real Life in Christ. BakerBooks: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005. 31.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Wonder: The Sixth W

"The death of journalism is at hand!"

Despite that dire warning, despite having a steady job teaching and coaching, and despite a mountain of self-doubt, I decided to regroup and peruse a life change. News writing seemed a perfect fit for somebody with a degree in both English and social studies. What I didn't realize was that the switch would require a return to square one.

Journalism 101.

Lesson #1. Writing the news is not writing a research paper. Short paragraphs (1-2 sentences) are required. The inverted pyramid style (most important information first) is mandatory. Most importantly, the length of the story depends on the news hole (the amount of space left over after allotting advertising space).

Which leaves what?

The 5 W’s and the H. Get those down and move on.
Who, what, when, where, why, and how? That's it?

That's all they want. Just the facts.



Concise, sterile, and clinical?


Stale and downright dull?

The purpose of the news is first to inform the reader of who did what to whom when and where. If there is space in the news hole, include how it was done with maybe a paragraph/sentence/phrase indicating why it was done or why the reader should care. 

Anything else we leave to the feature stories, not the news.

That was when I decided that I preferred to write features and fiction.

After I made that my goal, I discovered that the 5 Ws and the H were not enough. Features and fiction require a sixth W, an ingredient relied upon by scientists and theologians–– wonder.

Wonder has too often been ignored in the name of objectivity, when it is actually the foundation for discovery and innovation, philosophy and art. All we as a species originated with a fascination with the unknown. As Socrates explained succinctly, "Wisdom begins in wonder." By the way, Socrates was a pretty smart guy.

Consider this about your favorite books or stories: How often do you want the author to simply tell you the hows and whys of the plot? The old adage "Show, don't tell" originated from a common trait readers share: People want to discover. 

As writers, then, we must first generate wonder, sparking the reader's curiosity and desire for knowledge. That wonder can arise from all aspects of the story: characterization, setting, conflict, and complication.

How then do we create wonder? The answer comes from an unexpected source, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. He said, "Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand."

That does not mean that we should all be writing crime novels with staggering body counts and unfamiliar motives, however. What we need to do is trigger questions, ones like "Where are we?" "Why did that electrician say that?" "Why did my favorite character die in the first twenty pages?" "How did this boss become such a weenie?"

To be fair to your readers, be sure to answer these questions...eventually. Note, however, that the wonder materializes from waiting for the answer. Gratification is a good thing, but delayed gratification is excellent. 

Action excites. Humor entertains. Sex sells. But wonder...

Wonder captivates. It entices. It enthralls. 

Wonder transform reading from a hobby to an addiction. Questions lead to answers. Answers give knowledge. Knowledge leads to more questions, more knowledge, more questions....The reader cannot and does not want to stop. 

Without wonder, a book is simply prose. With it, the book is art. As Albert Einstein (another really smart guy) said, "Wonder is the source of all true art and science."

From a business viewpoint, wonder sells; dry dusty prose...not so much.

Maybe that's why J.K Rowling has proliferating disciples and the Washington Post has vanishing subscribers. Is it any wonder? 

Okay, I promise not to use that 6th W least until I can't remember where I put my thesaurus.

For more quotes on the word for the day (wonder) check the 17 Quotes on Wonder page.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sherlockian Exposition: Exploiting the Essential Facts

Starting a story reeks! 
You can develop the most unique concept in literary history. You can map out the conflict/plot in minute detail. You can create characters that outshine Hamlet, Medea, and Forrest Gump. You can have the most significant theme since “Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat.” But brainstorm and outline as you might, the page will still sit there mocking you, daring you, intimidating you. 
The block comes not from lack of preparation, but from knowing that if you don’t grab your audience at the outset of the story, it will be difficult to grab them at all. The resulting dilemma is that too much information may bore them now, while too little may confuse them later.
Hence, your fingers hover over the keyboard, your brain turns to pablum, and you have an overwhelming urge to make a trip to the bathroom. That first step––writing the exposition––is impossible.
For good reason. Exposition is frightening beast. 
By taking on the task of composition, the writer is mandated to establish setting, characters, mood, and conflict. But he/she must first decide how much detail is necessary and how much is too much. Make the wrong choice and the monster will gulp him/her down whole, belching loudly, and patting its gurgling belly.
That’s where Sherlockian exposition becomes crucial. Mastering it will fight off the fiend of inaction.
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his classic Sherlock Holmes stories, he made a point of giving his readers all the information they needed in order to solve the crime right along with the famous sleuth. If the reader paid attention, all the detail one required to appreciate the detective's reasoning, the setting, and the characters––all the essential information––was provided at the beginning of every story.
As we writers begin our stories/novels today, our role is the same. We must decide what information our readers need to know from the outset. Is our female protagonist's Winnie the Pooh tattoo going to affect her ability to combat the unholy alliance of Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Jimmy Kimmel? Will the butler's runny nose lead to a terrorist attack by agents of the Teddy Bear Lovers of America? Does it really matter that Congressman Abraham Conklin's orange plaid tie does not match his green polka-dotted shirt?
If those details are integral to the story or to the impression we want the reader to form, we want to use them as quickly as possible. We need to lead the audience where we want them to go. 
Unfortunately, too many facts can be a problem. In Doyle's "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Holmes points out that “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Maybe that is your goal––deception for interest's sake. However, deception should not be our aim as writers. Unless we want to be known as arrogant poopyheads.
Rather than the quality of misdirection, our detail, like Doyle's, needs import. What Doyle's most famous character proves in every story is not that it's fun to fool people. What he demonstrates is that the most innocuous detail can become the most significant. It is this quality which gives the Sherlock Holmes's tales their appeal.
While reading, the interactive reader will be asking questions like "Why is this person nervous?" "Why is it raining?" "Is it important that this person likes kumquats?" When the reader discovers the significance of these initially trivial details, there is a sense of satisfaction with the realization. Happy readers are avid readers.
For over a century, devoted Doyle readers have tried to outthink the genius Sherlock Holmes by observing as well as he did. They examine every scrap of information, every piece of clothing, every grimace included in the exposition, knowing that everything could be important to solving the case. The gratification from reaching the same conclusion as the great detective is immense.
Due to Doyle's most famous protagonist, the way the cases are introduced and solved, and audience involvement, Sherlock Holmes has become the most dramatized literary character in history. A writer would do well to emulate Doyle's storytelling methods.
Here is a word of caution, however. There is danger if the reader is fooled by detail, even when the deception is due to the reader's own inattention.
Think about the times you’ve scoured every closet in the house for the winter cap that has been sitting on your head ever since November. Remember rummaging through every drawer, shelf, and waste basket for the car keys you already held in your hands. Consider when you asked a stranger for the time while standing under the tower housing Big Ben. 
Do we ever blame ourselves for our inattention in those situations? Of course not. We look for something or someone to blame: Our little sister, our dog, the barometric pressure in Pompeii. Our readers may have the same reaction, blaming us for trying to disgrace them. Not a good idea.
Remember, humiliation is never a good feeling, but recognizing the origins of events, realizing we are the smartest kid in class, is. It's our job as writers to help the readers achieve the latter.
Does this mean we should all be writing mysteries a la Sherlock Holmes? No. It means that description for description's sake is pointless, particularly at the outset of a story. On the other hand, description with an aim is vital, whether our story involves a master sleuth like Holmes or a lonely person gazing out the window of a New York high-rise apartment contemplating whether to eat a Snickers or a doughnut.
The point is, as a writer, we can use the mundane to create some of the most fantastic characters, settings and plots ever conceived with just a little Sherlockian exposition, providing seemingly trivial detail that changes the whole course of your story.
So how do we start a story? Think about what's fun to read. That's how best to write and avoid the paralyzing beast. Plus, Sherlock Holmes would be proud.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Life's #1 Rule: Becoming The Expert Non-Expert

Life is filled with rules, and marketing your material is evidently no exception.
Writers and consultants I've read and heard suggest a myriad of rules to follow: Build a platform. Get a website. Blog. Expose yourself...
I think that means make your name and work known. At least, I hope it does.
A recurring suggestion states that the writer should become an expert in an area that makes him––and henceforth, his book––salable. 
The advice feels sound. Based on the evidence the advisers provide, it is sound. The problem for us marketing neophytes, however, is determining what that area could possibly be for us. 
I presented that issue to my wife one day as we emptied a trunkload of books into the garage. She said, “You have two bachelors degrees, went to graduate school, taught for 35 years, and have a library full of fiction, nonfiction, and reference books. You must be an expert on something!”
Sadly, no. 
That’s not false humility. I speak from experience. Every time in social and professional gatherings, whenever discussions veer into my favorite topics, someone knows more than I do. The problem, I have learned, is that despite my ego, it is quite obvious that there’s no subject where I know all there is to know.
Today I had a revelation: "Hey! That' s my area of expertise! I am the expert non-expert. In fact, that is my greatest asset."
I have absorbed life's greatest lesson: The more I learn, the more I know I need to learn. No time for resting on laurels. No time for medal/trophy polishing. No time to boast. Time to just shut up and learn.
A degree in history earned forty years ago? Times have changed. There's a little catching up to do.
A degree in English? Good chance I missed a few books written before 1976. There's an even better chance of having missed a few since.
Journalism? The practice and laws governing the practice have altered a tad. What was once only print and broadcast has morphed and now includes cyber pages, blogs, and Joe-Bob Wampeter forwarding fuzzy and creative “news” to anybody with an email account, a smartphone, and an IQ over 27.
Teaching experience? Every year at the front desk, one notices that techniques and students change. Science discovers more about how the brain works. Materials and delivery systems change. Technology improves. Subjects, programs, and entire professions disappear. As trends and appreciations transform, students teach as much as instructors do. 
Spiritual knowledge? Every truth leads to more questions. Every question leads to more answers and more truth, BUT more questions. The cycle continues ad infinitum. 
Here's the issue: Many of us find uncertainty and constant change frustrating.
If we are honest with ourselves, however, uncertainty and change are, in fact, liberating. Realizing how incomplete our learning is frees us to learn more. 
And that is the main problem we have accepting the title of expert. To accept the mantle of expert only confines us to what we already know, a position surely to be outpaced by events and discoveries. Only by realizing our inexpertise in EVERY area can we learn what we need to know.
Becoming an all-knowing expert is impossible. We cannot learn all there is to know about any subject.
What we can become––and be as long as we breathe––are authoritative learners, people knowledgeable on certain subjects, aware of our deficiencies, and willing to learn more about everything of which we were once so sure.
So how does one market being the authoritative learner, the non-expert? 
Learn all you can. Then, like all the world's "authorities," follow Life's #1 Rule: Fake it and fake it big.
With a few decades of practice, I'm kind of an expert on that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Dizzying Effect of Observation

There is writer's block and then there are the stone walls of procrastination, distraction, and pure laziness. I have to admit I've hit the block and all three walls the past couple of weeks. 

I've hit them face-first so hard, I swear my nose is coming out the back of my head. Searching for inspiration, concentration, and perseverance has been like riding a skateboard against freeway traffic. Hopeless and painful. 

Rather than fight the traffic, I've been bad.

What's irritating is that for years I've known many ways to overcome these obstacles. For example, just a few months ago, I wrote about the advantages of people-watching, particularly at McDonald's. As a teacher, I always told students that if you don't have anything to write about, write about not having anything to write about. I even constructed brainstorming lists on separate pages on this site to serve as stimuli.

So I have no excuses for not writing. Except sometimes I'm just a goomer with no excuses. I was so frustrated I just wanted to get away. 

So I did.

And it worked, though almost as painfully as running into the previously mentioned stonewalls.

Remember in ninth grade when the teacher assigned you to write about an embarrassing moment? It wasn't because he/she wanted to get dirt on you. It was because embarrassment is at once memorable and instructive. 

Which brings us to Washington, DC. 

Last week, my wife needed to go there on business. Since my mind was mush here in Minnesota and because I love exploring that city, I decided to get away and meet her there. 

Recently, she had been there and had eaten at the Skydome Restaurant in Crystal City. She raved about the food and the panoramic view of the city. 

"Hmmm," I thought. "Maybe that can shake something loose in my brain," so that is where we went our first night in town.

Just so you know, there's the something-loose-shaken brain and the totally spin-dried, God-schmucked brain. I got the latter.

When the elevator door opened on the fifteenth floor, I could barely move. The view stunned and riveted me. 

To our left was the Pentagon, the Air Force Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery.

Across the Potomac from them stood the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office tower, and the Capitol. 

From the right, a jetliner rose from Reagan National Airport and streaked away.

I stood speechless, attempting to drink in the beauty, the bustle, the vastness, and the palpable air of history shimmering over the entire spectacle. I didn't want to move.

Then the waiter said, "Follow me, please." My wife gently pushed my elbow.

I don't know if it was my gaping mouth or my twisting and turning as we crossed the room, but she smiled and whispered, "I told you."

We sat at a table near the window, but I wanted to see more. I kept craning my neck to see more while muttering, "Wow." 

This was the first time my wife laughed at me. It was a restrained chuckle, but laughter nonetheless.

I was not offended. I understood perfectly well why she did. 

Here she was with an incoherent country boy babbling and gawking at the big city, impressed by what natives consider commonplace and mundane. If I saw the same thing, I'd laugh, too. I smiled with her and ordered a steak dinner to comfort my bruised ego.

Throughout dinner, we discussed our separate flights from Minnesota, our plans for the next day, and other assorted minutiae. It was a perfect conversation in a perfect setting.

Then the noise from the kitchen and the television above the bar began to distract me. Annoyed,  I thought, "I wish the waiter hadn't put us so close to all the noise. I wonder if he'd move us."

Evidently, my scowl gave voice to my thoughts. "What's wrong?" my wife asked.

"It's kind of loud..."

"Yes, but it'll be over in a few minutes," she assured me.

To my frustrated and grumpy mind, that seemed unlikely. "Why?" I asked innocently.

"We'll be past the bar," she said, tilting her head in that "Don't-you-get-it?" way.


"We're moving."

"Moving? What?"

"It's a revolving restaurant. Didn't I tell you that?"


"Yes. Why do you think they put a number on our table?"

"I...I don't know. I thought it was like Arby's or Culvers'."

She didn't exactly cough up her gall bladder laughing, but not for lack of trying. Had she not struggled to keep the sound in, she probably would have. 

Embarrassed by my own naiveté, I made the mistake of averting my eyes from her and looking out the window. Then I saw the disturbing truth.

We were moving! In a circle!! 

I don't care how slowly; we were moving in a circle!

I didn't feel so good.

"Are you dizzy?" My wife asked.

I gulped and nodded. 

This time her laughter was not silent. I can't blame her.

After recovering my equilibrium back in our room, I realized that besides the great food and majestic vista, this whole dinner had been illuminating. Not just about my lack of knowledge, not about my wife's patience and sense of humor, but about life in general. 

As mortifying as the experience had been at the time, I learned it's easy to get distracted by both the overwhelming and the ordinary. Amidst the spell-binding and the unremarkable, you can miss the important and meaningful. This is especially true for curing writer's block.

Eventually, you have to stop and observe what's happening around you and what's happening to you. What you see and what you hear will awaken not only your senses, but your thoughts, your conscience, and your creativity. It's when you fail to pay attention that you shut down and miss the obvious, the significant.

Waking up can make you dizzy, sure. It can be embarrassing what you've missed. But when you get by all that, life will be so much more fascinating and spectacular that you can't help but have material to write and thoughts to share.

It all begins with observation.

Just for your edification, you may want fly over the stone wall of embarrassment rather than running smack into it like I did. Unless you like your nose sticking out the back of your head.