Sunday, September 23, 2012

Week 39 - The Artistic Coma

23 Sep - 29 Sep:

In Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and still going strong, Dorothea Brande recommends a number of mind exercises for releasing creativity. (The page and the keyboard are in French so this could take a while).

1. Morning Writing:
  • Before seeing or hearing words, preferably whilst still in bed, write.
  • Write anything that comes to mind, especially dreams.
  • Write with the intention of finishing the piece in one sitting.
  • Wake up earlier than usual if necessary.

2. Wordless Recreation:
  • No T.V., no music with words, no theatre, no conversation, no reading.
  • The idea is to allow the mind to become partially hynotized by rhythmical, monotonous and wordless activities.
  • Examples include walking, knitting, whittling, fishing, cooking, gardening, horse-riding, shuffling cards, and in fact, anything that doesn't require a lot of concentration.
  • As the writer allows the mind to relax, ideas can flow freely, problems can be solved, thoughts can fuse into something meaningful, and better and easier writing follows. 
  • As a side note, those fans of Stephen King's On Writing will recall the author's dedication to his daily walk. Coincidence?

3. The Artistic Coma:
  • In a quiet place, shut your eyes and still your mind.  If it won't be still, focus on a dull object (like a black sock) and then close your eyes, still thinking of the dull object until that also leaves the mind. (This may take several days of practise.)
  • Think of someone else's story and replace one of the characters with someone you know. How does the new character react? What direction will the story now take?
  • Now think of one of your own characters. Imagine them doing things, saying things, living.
  • Go for a walk and watch your story inside your head. Start the story when you start the walk, and end the story when you end the walk. Think of the story, not how to write it.
  • Let your mind wander through your story as you have a shower or get a drink.
  • Back in a dark, quiet place, lie on your back, close your eyes, and take as long as necessary.
  • It could take ten minutes or two hours, but at some point, the overwhelming urge to write will hit.
  • Go and write.

My attempts:
  • Surprisingly, I have been successful in waking early and writing short, complete thoughts.
  • I have attempted the deliberate artistic coma and fallen asleep on three occasions.
  • Having said that, I do have a tendency to lie awake when I should be sleeping, thinking about my story, and lo and behold, I desperately need to get out of bed and jot down where I've identified a problem or resolved one. I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who does this.

The greater depth of thought brought about by a relaxed state of mind (when the brain produces alpha waves somewhere between light sleep and wakefulness) has been long understood, and there is plenty of research on the subject for those interested in the science.

Brande is suggesting that a writer can induce an artistic coma (otherwise known as 'the zone') anytime we want. I've read so many 'How to Write' books and articles from writers that insist on sticking to writing schedules and that dismiss inspiration as beginner's folly, but are we denying ourselves the opportunity to be inspired?

Who was the writer who said, "I write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired every morning at ten o'clock."

Hey, why not?

Exercise 77. Relax.

Exercise 78. Write.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Week 38 - Scavenging

16 Sep - 22 Sep: Opening the Mind - Part 3

I just picked up this odd assortment of titles from the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop for the whopping sum of $3.

Since scavenging (and recycling) books has long been a habit of mine, I think I have some useful as well as unusual non-fiction titles to refer to anytime I think my world is getting a little narrow or I feel I need a boost in knowledge or a factual story idea.

Books on mythology and the Dark Ages are favourites. I have a guide for surviving the Rhodesian bush written by a member of the British Army (at the time); an account of the Chamorro people (Mariana Islands) written by a German Foreign Service officer in 1904; an impractical number of old edition writing textbooks; and, of course, a great many travel guides and magazines. (This collection comprises new as well as used items for those worried about the market being cheated.)

So let's see what gems I can find within the covers of my latest extravagance. If I can't find any, oh well, I'll just take them back for others to enjoy.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition, Ninth Edition by Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz
Almost half of black boys wind up a grade behind in school, and only a third of 20-year-old black men are enrolled in college. All the more daunting is the fact that the majority of these boys and men were just like [my son] Jason, raised in a home by a single, black mother. I have a lot of work to do.... (Raising a Son - With Men on the Fringes by Robyn Marks.)

Flying With the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear: Stories from Native North America, told by Joseph Bruchac
...four is a number of powerful and magical important to Native peoples: There are four seasons, four winds, four directions, four stages in a person's life. It is interesting in these tales how often each young man faces trials in clusters of four. (From the Introduction.)

The Farther Reaches of Human Nature by Abraham H. Maslow
...the creative person, in the inspirational phase of the creative furor, loses his past and his future and lives only in the moment. (Chapter Four, The Creative Attitude.)
The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture. Imagining the Future.
The term "utopia," coined by Thomas More in 1516, is a pun on eutopia/outopia - the good place that is also no place. (Being in Utopia by Ruth Levitas.)
Don't Panic: You Can Write Better! by Diane Teitel Rubins
A good piece of writing, like a good meal, leaves a person with a satisfying feeling. So, create your endings as carefully as you would a delectable dessert.
What unusual (subjective term, I know) non-fiction do others have or use to keep the mind open and active? Any strange magazine subscriptions that broaden the vocabulary and brighten the writing palette?

That concludes my week of Opening the Mind through sensing, stalking and scavenging.

I'll be in vacationing next week, but while I'm on the subject of cerebral stimulation, I hope to post some more mind-boggling insight during Week 39.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Week 38 - Stalking

16 Sep - 22 Sep: Opening the Mind - Part 2

Q: What's the difference between a writer and a stalker? 
A: A notepad and pencil.

Quite frankly, the characters in my story are a little boring, at least physically, so I went looking for a bit of realness, that is, I went a-stalking (names have been changed to protect the innocent). These are unedited descriptions, lacking any real motion and unlikely to ever be used, but the idea is, well, to open my mind to observation (and to write it all down, of course).

Victim One:
His arms and feet waggle him forward, but his body stays still. Is there a block of wood under those clothes, or perhaps a block of ice with the body frozen within and only the limbs free to move?
Victim Two:
Huge, boxy head with a rug of woolly, rusty hair, fuzzy short beard, close-set thin eyes separated by a wide, flat nose.  Visiting from the Scottish Highlands or ogre in disguise?
Victim Three:
Young, petite part-Asian goddess with waist-length hair like an oil slick.  Full lips, a small, white scar on the left side of her top lip.  One eye slightly lower than the other, giving an illusion of mystical asymmetry.
Victim Four:
Blond bob, long around her jaws and shaved at the nape of her neck. Flat chest between narrow shoulders.  Denim shorts, the cheeks of a full ass giving way to solid, tanned legs.  Classic pear-shape.  Does she know she's outgrown those shorts?
Victim Five:
Paisley scarf wrapped around a bulb-like head and trailing down her boney back, fluttering like a palm frond as her sandals jut out in front of her and seem to jerk her along.  Cancer victim anxious about her appointment or die-hard hippy late for a public protest?
Victim Six:
Old guy, sartorially stylish. Prim moustache and precise side-part. Slips on a leather jacket and smiles easily at his lunch date (woman of the same age and elegance). He steps around the other patrons with the confidence and grace of an athlete. I suspect he is ex-CIA.
Okay, so now I'm off to the Thrift Shop to see what I can find there.... Happy stalking.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Week 38 - Releasing the Senses

16 Sep - 22 Sep: Opening the Mind - Part 1

"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul." Oscar Wilde
Now read that again slowly... and then we'll head to the California Pizza Kitchen for lunch.

Dark, stale smell of rubbish stirred by heavy rains,
like the jungle smells of South America that pervade even the largest cities.
Roar of the patrons like the rumble of a river over rocks;
Individuals cackle and chuckle and chatter like birds of the forest.
Dusky waiters and waitresses.
Precise haircuts, black uniforms dancing between tables with the efficiency of samurai.
Only their lazy voices and vacant eyes betray them:
They would rather be somewhere else.
Sleepy tones of nature for decor.
Light muffled by hung ceilings.
Lamp shades woven with matt brown and green, like grass of the savannah.
An eruption of sandstone cascading down feature walls,
soft reds, white and earthy orange, ordered and chaotic.
Vibrant prints against the beige.
Oversized fresh food fit for giants:
Apples, red and green peppers, a sliced lemon, muddy mushrooms.
The subtle aroma of pizza crust browning.
A whiff of bacon, garlic, oregano when the waitress breezes past with a platter.
The lemon stabs at a cut on my finger when I squeeze it over the rubble of ice.
Sweet iced tea, tangy citrus, cooling my tastebuds, distracting them from hunger.
 ...and then our food arrives.

Did I just write a poem (of questionable quality)? It certainly didn't start out that way.

This week the objective side of my writer self is resting, and my child-like curiosity of plain things, and my desire to expand my creative mind is taking a romp.

Next week, if things go as planned, I'll be in Europe, notepad and pencil in hand, ready to collect images and ideas from the land of wine, baguettes, and oh la la.

Exercise 75. Use sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste to describe a night spent in an unfamiliar place (either remembered or imagined).

Exercise 76. Listen to a piece of music and jot down what it tells you. (From Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Week 37 - Proportioning Plot

9 Sep - 15 Sep:
It is proportion that beautifies everything, the whole universe consists of it, and music is measured by it.
English composer, Orlando Gibbons
A writer could do worse than have the sense of balance and proportion that an artist or musician does. 
So how do we know if our story is balanced or not?  When I talked about Outlining way back in Week 11, I touched on proportioning plot through the age-old technique of designing a story around Acts

This week, I'll lend more detail to that approach using the ideas contained within How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, Writer's Mentor Group.  In the chapter, 'Proportion in Plot'  F. M. Maupin uses a 200 page novel, divided equally into five acts of forty pages, as the framework:

Act I - (pages 1-40)
Set the story up, establish the dramatic situation, introduce the main characters, main relationships, and the main conflict, or at least the idea of it.

Act II, plus the first half of Act III - (pages 40-100)
Lead up to the crisis, that is, the turning point of the story, and put it on stage.  This is the point which steers the story to the only possible ending.  (Is this really true?)

Last half of Act III, all of Act IV and first half of Act V - (pages 100-180)
This section provides a lot of space for leading up to the climax.  The reader is not about to stop now, so this is the best place for love scenes, historical information, subplots, soliloquies and other slower-paced bits and pieces the writer wants to elaborate on.

Last half of Act V – (pages 180-200)
After the climax, the last twenty pages must tie up all the lose ends and finish the book.
Okay, so this is just one model, but it makes sense to me and I like it.  Besides, it's got me thinking about that crucial turning point ideally located half to three-quarters of the way through.

Maupin offers the following exercise for those interested in testing the model:

Exercise 73.  Take four paperclips and insert them in a novel - preferably one you're familiar with - so that they form five equal sections of text.  Check that the story is clearly set up by the first paperclip.  See how close to the middle of the book, or close to the third paperclip, the crisis is revealed.

Exercise 74.  Now check your own novel attempt against Maupin's model.

For the next few weeks, I'll be indulging in 'chill-out' posts, i.e., making it up as I go along, before settling back into pseudo-academic mode in October.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Week 36 - Transitioning

2 Sep - 8 Sep: She's in a meeting with the president?  Hang on a minute.  Wasn't she just naked in an aeroplane?

I have recently learned that when drafting a long story, I am a fairly economical writer who tends to skip transitions in favour of getting to the meat of the scene before it disappears forever from my consciousness.  In other words, I'm lousy at transitions, and - I'll be honest - I need help.

In Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer gives autobiographers, and some of us who aren't, pointers about moving horizontally through time (as opposed to flashbacks, etc).  To give credit to her suggested tools, I went searching through my trusty bookshelf for examples:

1.  Typical transitional phrases, such as, "That afternoon...," or even, "Then...":
 It was shortly after midnight when the concierge phoned him.  (The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark.)
The next morning at breakfast she acted as though nothing had changed.  (Assegai by Wilbur Smith.) 

2. Leaps into new scenes:
  • Begin a new scene with an action:
"That's all you want?  A ride?" the young man said.  
Dr Lecter showed him his open hands.  "A ride."
The fast motorcycle split the lines of traffic on the Lungarno, Dr. Lecter hunched behind the young rider....  (Hannibal by Thomas Harris.)  
  • Jump into a new scene with a description of a new place.
He found a woods road that roughly paralleled the barrier.  It was overgrown and disused, but  much better than pushing through the puckerbrush.  (Under the Dome by Stephen King.)
  • Leap into a new scene with an inner response:
It seemed at first another and a happier world which I had re-entered:  I was home, in the late afternoon, as the long shadows were falling.... (Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene)
  • Specify the day or time or day and time:
At around 7:35, a black Lincoln Navigator pulled up in front of Taberna del Alabardero, a hotsy DC eatery for the stars. (Cross Fire by James Patterson.)

3. Bridges across time, e.g., "The next three months moved slowly..."
Weeks of savage cold.  Quoyle was comfortable enough in his sweater and anorak.  (The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.)

Okay, so transitioning needn't be a big deal; these people do it so effortlessly after all.  Next week I'll stick with the time theme but zoom out to take a look at proportion in plot.

Exercise 71. You've been away from a character for three chapters.  Write the first four sentences to return the reader to viewpoint and location (from Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting by Jack M. Bickham).

Exercise 72. "Describe how a character gets from home to work in a page, then in a paragraph, then in a sentence; describe how a character moves from an argument with her husband to a meeting with a friend." (From Jean Rosier-Jones, So You Want To Write.)