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Write The Next Sentence

Working on a new novel is always a bit destabilizing. You start off with what you think is a good idea, hopefully enough to galvanize the process, but then you reach the dreaded three-quarter section slump. My novels do tend to be on the shorter side, but I don’t see this one concluding for another twenty thousand words or so. I know where I want the story to get to, sort of, but how to get there?

While procrastinating before my morning writing session waiting for the caffeine to kick in, I often amuse myself by watching YouTube writing videos. There are some good ones out there, as well as some really bad ones whose advice you should never take. But among the videos I do find useful are the ones by Dean Wesley Smith. I’ve mentioned him before; the reason I like his advice is that he’s a pro who’s been there. He also put the idea of “writing into the dark” in my head. I read his short book on the topic, but honestly, you can glean enough from the videos to get the message.

I’ve written the past two novels, including my current draft, into the dark and I will probably never go back to outlining again. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a much more creative one. By not knowing what is going to happen next in my story, I am tapping into my creative brain, not the critical one. Now, that doesn’t mean a writer can’t get extremely creative inventing an outline, and I have approached writing that way in the past. But if all the creativity is spent on the pre-write, then isn’t getting the words down just an exercise in filling in the blanks? Many successful writers, I imagine, prefer outlining, but I’ve found it much more satisfying—and scary—to write into the dark.

As I approached this morning’s writing session feeling my way around blindly, hoping to grasp something familiar that will guide me to the light of sudden inspiration, that “aha” moment every writer lives for, I took Smith’s advice to not think too far ahead. Just write the next sentence and then write the next one.

So, I did that until I had written 1700 words in less than an hour. I feel pretty good about it, and not only that, during my writing into the dark session I found an entry point to the next scene I hadn’t thought of before. This is the value, and the joy, of discovery writing. It’s the essence of creative writing. When you get stuck, just write the next sentence.

It worked for me. If you’ve ever tried this approach or if you’re dead set against it, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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Intuitive Writing and Why I’ll Never Go Back to Plotting

What Lies Beneath

The surrealists were on to something when they discovered automatic writing. By shedding the constraints of the rational mind, they were able to tap into the visions dwelling in the well of the unconscious and thereby discovering new truths to explore. Party games like Exquisite Corpse (lovely name) where artists collaborate blindly, perhaps with just their id’s as their guides, show how creativity unleashed is always interesting and often amusing. The “quality” of the results may vary, but what’s useful (for me anyway) about the intuitive approach is it feels like a direct line into the creative brain. This is exactly where I want to be when I’m writing fiction and especially poetry.

Spend any time trawling the internet for writing advice, and you’ll encounter the inevitable plotter vs. pantser debate. Pantser—the name sounds unappetizing—refers to writing by the seat of one’s pants as opposed to working from an outline. I used to be a great proponent of outlining until I just recently tried the intuitive approach on my last few projects. And the results were surprising.

Ain’t gonna lie, I was scared at first. I was an explorer sailing my ship into uncharted territory. But soon I discovered hidden treasures along the way which caused me to release my grip and just allow the story to guide me. Trade winds of fresh ideas filled my sails and I was gliding along freely, not thinking, not planning, just going with the flow. It was lovely. And fun! And before I knew it, three hours of solid writing had zipped by and I didn’t want to stop. Any writer who’s ever forced themselves to push through a writing session knows the difference.

Okay, you might say, that sounds great, but what about the results? Sure, you were having fun, but exactly what kind of unreadable drivel did you produce? Would you be surprised to hear it was some of my best work? Reading it back was a surprising delight. Yes, I had to go back and reshape, but the ideas were there—good ones— and buried not too far beneath, the structure.

Artists like Picasso knew how to paint “realistically” before they became masters of modernism. In other words, the structure may have been abstracted, but it was there. Not comparing myself to Picasso here (ahem) but I’ve studied story structure extensively, including reading Robert McKee’s Story several times and taking his seminar. In other words, I know it well enough to let my thinking side relax a bit, confident that my knowledge of story structure will be residing in my subconscious when the intuitive side takes over.

When embarking on a new writing journey, which side (intuitive or thinking) should be at the wheel and which below deck? After trying both, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being a plotter.

Which type of writer are you? Have you ever attempted intuitive writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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More Writing Advice: Believe in Yourself

Because no one else will.

At least not at first.

Late last night, after working my “day job” as a theater “roustabout,” I received the fantastic news that my screenplay, Unmasked, was chosen as a finalist for the Best Horror Feature Screenplay Award at the Oregon Scream Week Horror Film Festival. A few months ago, on a whim, I entered my screenplay into a bunch of film festivals. So far, I’ve heard back from two. It won fourth place at The International Horror Hotel, and now it’s up for another award.

Look for rainbows and you’ll find them.

I’m thrilled! Unmasked was the first feature-length screenplay I ever attempted to write, the first draft produced in a weekend fever dream over a decade ago. Since then, I’ve written many novels and other works, but Unmasked convinced me I could do it.

I don’t think there is one writer, professional or novice, who doesn’t feel a level of terror when facing the blank page. I’ve written about this before. There is always trepidation, the fear that you can’t do it. The only way to prove to yourself that you can do it is to sit down and do it.

Easy right? Not really. I think what holds most creatives back, and I’m certainly not immune, is that it takes a great deal of self-belief even to attempt a creative endeavor, let alone complete it and work it to some level of competence. Framed another way, you’ll never prove to yourself how incompetent you really are unless you try. The dreaded I suck! fear is probably the number one reason most of us make excuses about why we can’t do something.

I’m telling you, you can. But it takes work. And practice. Most of all, it takes belief in yourself. We’ve all seen examples of mediocre talents who’ve gone on to have tremendous success because of their unwavering confidence in their abilities. They shake off criticism like a dog after a dunk; they keep pushing forward no matter what. As annoying as some of these creatives are—Madonna, I have you in my sights—you have to admire their tenacity.

Conversely, there is another type of which many of us are all too familiar. You may count yourself among them. I’m referring to the creative person with immense talent who never seems to complete any project, or worse, has a self-destructive bent. I’ve seen it manifest in many ways. In fact, I’ve explored that destructive messaging myself in my work, including UNMASKED, which is essentially a horror story about a dysfunctional family. I know the territory all too well.

If you can turn your pain into art, people will respond to it.

Believing in yourself means showing up for work every day without expecting any accolades. Keep working and keep pushing forward. People will start to notice. You’ll gain fans and maybe even turn it into a lucrative venture. I’m still waiting for the latter, but in the meantime, I’ll keep working on it every day because I love it. If you are struggling with your creativity, start with self-belief and let the rest of the world catch up.

Read UNMASKED
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Ten Writing Tips

I tend not to give writing advice because I’d rather leave it up to the true experts, but I thought I’d share Ten Writing Tips that have worked for me in my writing development. Most of these are not original (I’ll try to give credit where I can), but I’ve found them helpful. Here goes:

  1. Writing as Practice – I got this idea from Dean Wesley Smith’s YouTube channel, and I couldn’t agree more. Musicians practice every day, so why shouldn’t writers? Think of writing as practice and take the pressure off yourself. Learn while you practice and develop good writing habits.
  2. Daily Word Count – Set a daily goal and try to reach it. I keep a spreadsheet of my word count, and I’ve been averaging around 2000 words a day. If I keep it up, I’ll have a 60,000-word manuscript by the end of the month. That’s a short novel! It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Don’t wait for inspiration (see tip #1). Just sit down and write every day.
  3. Immerse Yourself in Language – You won’t improve if you don’t read. Read for pleasure, read for entertainment, but read every day. I read for an hour a day at least, and lately, I’ve become obsessed with audiobooks. Immersing myself in language makes me a better writer because I’ve learned to discern good prose from bad, to hear the musicality in a graceful turn of phrase. I may not be as good as (most of) the books I read, but they’ve given me a target for which to aim.
  4. Keep a Reading Journal – This sounds a bit nerdy, but I always try to keep a notebook handy, and when I read an interesting phrase or clever use of an active verb or mind-blowing description, I’ll stop what I’m doing and jot it down. Later, that verb that I never considered may find its way into my manuscript. Read (and listen to) good fiction and learn from the best!
  5. Keep it Active – I didn’t realize how much I was using the passive voice in my writing until I read Stephen King’s book On Writing. Now, I see it everywhere. He also advised against using adverbs, although I see he uses them quite often, at least in his early fiction. The problem with this type of advice is that there seems to be an entire generation of writers who now live in fear of the dreaded adverb or passive voice. Both have their place in the English language. Just don’t overuse them.
  6. Develop Your Own Style Naturally – One of my reader’s pet peeves is overwritten, purple prose that is trying too darn hard to be “fancy.” If I can’t find the story for all the filigree, I’ll put down the book. Each one of us has a unique voice. An excellent place to start developing yours is by writing clear and clean sentences that advance the story.
  7. Use All the Senses – Of all the five senses, I tend to neglect the olfactory variety, which is why I place a written reminder at my writing desk to add a smell every two pages or so. Nothing evokes emotion like a scent.
  8. Mistakes Are Inevitable – When you think of writing as practice, you’ll worry less about making mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, so is bad writing at times. I once read a book on skiing that advised to always try to ski just at the point where you are falling. I was bruised by the end of my skiing adventure, but I think I improved more than if I hadn’t pushed myself to the edge. When I sit down for a writing session, I try to force myself to write a little beyond my skill level. Sometimes I surprise myself.
  9. Write a Clean First Draft – This tip may seem like it’s a contradiction of the previous one, but if you write a sloppy first draft, you may not be able to repair it in the second (or third) go-around when you can’t even remember what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. This is why I believe that setting an unrealistic word count can be counter-productive.
  10. Banish the Critical Voice – Nothing kills the creative spirit like that nagging, critical voice telling you how badly you suck! Save your inner “Karen” for polishing your prose, not in the creation of it. One way to beat the inner critic is by becoming so emotionally involved in your story, feeling it through all your senses, that there’s room in your writing space only for creative discovery!

Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment.

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Another year, another Nano

I’ve decided to start this Monday morning’s NaNoWriMo writing stint by updating my long-neglected blog. This year has been strange, and with tomorrow’s Election Day looming, I expect it to get even weirder. But here I am doing another NaNoWriMo writing challenge. I feel more prepared this year than I ever have before. For one thing, since my Covid lay-off, I have a lot more time on my hands. That can be a blessing or a curse for procrastinators, but I’m usually good at knocking out my daily words first-thing in the morning when my brain is fresh, and the caffeine is pumping.

For this year’s Nano, I’m writing the sequel to my Wattpad fantasy book. It’s called Hyperia Rising, and I already have this lovely cover by Consuelo Parra to inspire me. I love using Wattpad to try out different genres. I know fantasy readers are a tough crowd to please, so before I release this into the Amazon jungle, I want to have at least three completed books in the series ready to go. But that’s getting ahead of myself. For now, I have to write this sucker, and I’m only 2000 words in. Here’s book one of the series on Wattpad if you’re interested taking a look.

I’m attempting to up my word count this year (50K is about half the average fantasy book). So, I’m setting the goal for least 2000 a day, maybe more if I’m feeling particularly inspired.

And because I’m not quite ready to face the blank page yet, here are some tips I’ve learned from doing previous Nanos (completed or not).

  • Write at the same time every day. It helps to establish the habit. I like to write in the morning before the world rushes in, and my brain is alert. Like exercising, getting it over early in the day keeps that dark cloud of procrastination from following me around. Find the time of day when you have the most energy and put in a good hour or writing with no interruptions.
  • Get in the zone. I listen to mediation music from the YouTube channel Yellow Brick Cinema every time I write. It’s become such a habit that just hearing the first droning chords signals my brain to get in the writing zone.
  • Just write. Don’t rewrite. This is difficult for me to do. When I know the sentence I just wrote is horrible, I do sometimes pause to revise, but in general, I try not to stop. I know I’ll be going over it again and again and again…
  • Know what you’re going to write each day. Some writers (planners) have elaborate outlines. Some make it up as they go along (pantsers). I do both. For this novel, because fantasy generally has more characters and complicated storylines, I created a more detailed outline than usual.
  • Try to complete your word count in one sitting.

Well, I think I’ve procrastinated enough this morning. The coffee is kicking in, and I’m ready to face the blank page. If you’re participating in NanoWriMo this year, feel free to add me as a buddy so we may spur on each other’s progress. Let’s have fun this year!

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